History As Judge

Where should you search for Wisdom? What is the penalty for Folly?

Evidence of human civilization stretches back at least 50,000 years. Evidence of record-keeping and structured societies begins some 5,000 years before the present. If the test of a society is survival for 300 years (enough for a few generations of succession to prove the stability of the structure), then this constitutes a mere 6% of recorded human history. There have been a number of civilizations, societies and forms of organizations that exceeded that test, but they stand as a tiny proportion of those that did not - the Olympus of success atop the Everest of failures.

From a management point of view the test of history is an invaluable one. Undoubtedly managers are offered a brand new method of improving efficiency, workplace culture, technological innovation, or organizational structure on a constant basis, and have to choose which to adopt and implement and which to reject. Instead of being seduced by the fashionable terms and promises of change, the manager should ask, "What examples in history support this model or idea?" If you strip away the glamour of a proposed change and seek to see it as it has worked, then subjecting a proposal to the 6% test allows one to evaluate whether it really is the Olympic pinnacle of innovation, or merely another false summit in the Himalayas of failure.

The Curmudgeon is a pragmatic empiricist. He doubts the need for change for change's sake, or simply because innovation is fashionable (how often have you, the manager, been offered a new system or product simply because it's the newest version of existing technology rather than being a dramatic improvement over the old version?). Too many organizations adopt new things not because they work, but because they promise to work. Implementation often causes more problems than it solves, and without a firm basis of evidence, The Curmudgeon doubts the claims being made. The base response thus to any system of innovation whose roots are not firmly planted in history is simple: “Not good enough."

The list of successful civilizations (by the 6% test) is dismayingly short - considering the duration of our experimentation and the multiplicity of human cultural variations:

  • Egyptian civilization (c.2500 years) Absolute monarchs

  • Roman civilization (c.1200 years) Republic & autocracy

  • Babylonian civilization (1100 years) Hereditary monarchy

  • Holy Roman Empire (c.830 years) Elected monarchy

  • Ottoman Empire (c. 600 years) Islamic caliphate

  • Sparta (c.400 years) Dual constitutional monarchy

Two other interesting examples that are of note include the Catholic Church (c. 1700 years) a supra-national culture and organization that has survived despite enormous changes over the centuries, and the Mongol Empire (c.88 years), a relatively short-lived civilization that set the stage for a number of successful Chinese dynasties.

On the other hand, the list of unsuccessful civilizations is quite varied: Ming Dynasty (c. 270 years), Mamluk Sultanate (c.260 years), Seleucid Empire (c.240 years), Russian Empire (c.200 years), Inca & Aztec Empires (c.100 years), Czechoslovakia (c.90 years), Japanese Empire (c.80 years), Soviet Union (c.70 years), Zulu Kingdom (c.70 years), various European colonial empires [Italian, Belgian, German] (c.40-60 years), etc.

Arguably most modern forms of organization fit under the “not good enough” umbrella for good reason – we're still experimenting with them. Constitutional democracies, parliamentary democracies, authoritarian states, fascism, communism, state socialism, Stalinism, totalitarianism, single-party dictatorship, anarchism and so forth are the most recent experiments in a long line of forms of social organization, and, as a Chinese leader once said when asked his opinion of the impact of the French Revolution, “It's too soon to say...”. Lesser forms of organization, like communes or kibbutzes, collectives, task-forces, skunkworks, even tribes and kinships only work at a small scale and/or when supported by larger organizations. They are not, by their natures, able to survive over longer periods of time. Dynasties within civilizations came and went, with the average lasting about 150 years before stagnation and competition eliminated them.

Thus the test, the verifiable assessment for the worth of some new organizational structure is the evidence of History. Very few new organizational ideas are actually new, and of those that survive, even fewer are long-term successes. Here, we turn back to our long-sighted Chinese leader. Short-term success is often just a euphemism for long-term failure. If the structure survives, it was a good idea. If the structure dies, it was a bad idea. History is a harsh mistress for invention and innovation; best that we learn from it, not suffer its consequences.

Returning then to the main point of this post, if there's no way to distinguish the best practices in organization or innovation, then you might as well just go with whichever solution you like best, or whomever's argument you heard most recently. Some Management Theorists rely on this in proposing new ways of doing business - you'll never be able to test whether they made an improvement or not. But if you actually want a solution that has a track record and one whose providence is without dispute, then subject the wishful thinking of the Management Theorist to the judicial eye of History and see what lies beneath. Do they return with evidence of their ideas in Ancient Egypt, or do they fall into the void of "Not good enough"? Are their ideas tempered in the forge of long practice or just another flash in the pan? Is that new anarcho-fascist form of horizontal management guilty of “too soon to say”?

Join The Curmudgeon in the next few posts as we go looking for lessons that have actually stood the test of time.  We'll go find some management theories, and we'll let History be our judge.