As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself reading more and more history. I am told that the way to appreciate history is not to “play it in reverse” – that is don’t look at history from today’s perspective where you already know what happened. You have to “play it forward” – what was it like to live in that place and time and to have to make the big decisions of the day? It occurred to me several years ago that we think of historical trends as big things. Nations moving against nations. The rise and fall of societies. Then I realized: Many of the big events took place in familiar terrain – collections of people organized around a more or less well defined set of goals and working toward a common purpose. And if you go back in history far enough – say 1,000 years or so — the numbers are also pretty familiar, usually less than a million people. In fact, nations and societies with 10,000 to 200,000 people were the norm. In other words, they were in many ways like the modern business enterprise.
That’s worth saying again: except for the details of time and place, there is really not a whole lot of difference between modern enterprises and societies of antiquity. The fate of large groups of people is determined as much by human aspirations and failings, reactions to threats, wise use of resources, and the emergence of leaders as by anything else.
So with that as a backdrop I want to ask a couple of questions that seem to be completely unrelated to each other.
Question 1: Why didn’t the 1940’s Western Electric videophone make it?
Sure, the structure of the industry mattered, but it wasn’t lack of innovation that doomed the videophone. After all. Video conferencing is ubiquitous today. So why didn’t that technology make it when today, for a hundred dollars, you can stream high quality video to another hundred dollar device? The culture of innovation is fundamentally different today than it was when the videophone was developed by Bell Labs in the 1940’s. In fact the species of innovator that Bell Labs represents is today very nearly extinct.
My Second Question is: What was the person who chopped down the last tree on Easter Island thinking about while he was doing it?
In truth, I can’t claim credit for the question. It was posed by Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, an historical and geographical tour-de-force that poses a framework for looking at decisions that societies make on their way to success or failure. Those decisions invariably relate to:
- environmental damage
- climate change
- hostile neighbors
- friendly trade partners, and
- cultural response
Let’s take the similarities between ancient societies and modern enterprises seriously – they involve similar numbers of people, they define their own value systems. The historically successful route for both was a kind of vertical integration that made it reasonable to work and innovate in relative isolation. The way that 21st century companies innovate in the face of environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbors is very important in their long-term prospects for survival. On the other hand, how they treat their friendly trading partners determines how much of the work for survival has to be carried on their shoulders alone. And what about cultural barriers? The whole point of WWC is to learn from companies that innovate around the right values but are culturally unable to execute effectively. Diamond’s language is anthropology, not business – but we’ll see in upcoming posts that the difference between success and failure is often rooted in the same factors that led to murder, starvation and catastrophe in the ancient world — and ultimately to the collapse of societies.