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Looking Way, Way into the past for today’s solutions

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

Looking Way, Way into the Past for Today’s Solutions

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

Attempting to cover 13,000 years of history in less than 500 pages does not lend itself to an in-depth study but does match the reading preferences of most of us. Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, does exactly that and provides us with plenty of detail. Of course, Diamond attempts to answer a more singular question of whether or not biological differences among races influence their rate of developing societies. The more precise question he raises is why did Europe, which was not always in the forefront of development, end up being the conquerors rather than the conquered? His title gives the obvious causes since all three items (Guns, Germs, and Steel) created disruption, devastation, and death when civilizations collided.

Diamond’s academic disciplines seem to uniquely qualify him for this task as he teaches physiology at a medical school, writes books on evolutionary biology, and is a professor of geography. Those pursuits alone give one pause before picking up the book, fearing you will be trapped in a scientific journey with a tour guide speaking a foreign tongue. Fortunately, Professor Diamond has written a very readable book that allows you to disagree, or at least hold out some suspicion with some of his hypothesis and perspectives, but his conclusions make sense.

Fundamentally, civilizations tend to gather where they can grow food. The earliest civilizations had more naturally domesticating plants that they could plant and harvest. Additionally, some of these same areas had large mammals that could be domesticated and used for productive purposes. Once the process reached critical mass, people gave up on the hunter-gatherer approach and stable communities emerged. Communities allow for other occupations to develop as people begin to acquire non portable possessions and, eventually, governing organizations are required to keep order with so many people living in close proximity and sharing community resources.

Because some people tend to wander off a bit and others like to see what’s on the other side of the mountain, farming, simple tool technology, and governing ideas tend to get spread around. Diamond makes the interesting observation that transfer of ideas moves much quicker across an East West Axis rather than North South. So, for example, ideas and approaches moved much quicker across Eurasia than from North and South America. This is largely due to the similarities in climate that allows similar crops and agricultural approaches to be used. Additionally, natural barriers like deserts and mountain ranges cut off the dissemination process.

However, Diamond notes that while the diffusion of ideas created an important building block of civilization, the advancement in technologies seems to also be influenced by less centralization rather than more. Diamond argues that the fragmentation of Europe actually produced a more fertile field for innovation than China’s more centralized approach. Although he also points out that those countries with long histories of good institutional approaches tend to benefit quicker from the introduction of new technologies.

Diamond’s work received attention from leaders we associate more with the future than the past, like Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. Gates and others wondered about the implications from studying the histories of entire human societies with emerging business groups and whether businesses be organized loosely or more centralized.

Like most interesting historical theories, Diamond’s conclusion highlights a complex formula where bits and pieces are in contradiction especially over a longer time continuum. Civilizations develop because people find a reason to live in ever larger communities which produces great demand for products and services and more motivated and intelligent people to provide them. But at some point all this centralization appears harmful to the process.

Diamond’s example of China highlights the challenge. China at several points in world history emerged as the leading civilization and produced numerous discoveries such as gunpowder, magnetic compasses, and paper. In the 1500’s it possessed a navy that would have enabled it to rule the seas and conquer the New World. Yet China’s leader’s decided not only against moving forward, they decided to abandon ocean going vessels, mechanical clocks, and water driven spinning machines.

Just as absolute power corrupts absolutely, apparently absolute power also enables for some absolutely good and bad decisions. Additionally, when power is diffused, there tends to be a lot more competition and reasons for being the first guy on the block to come up with the newest advance whether it means more protection, more land, or more money.

Knowing when to drive the process and when to let the system operate freely is at the heart of situational leadership. Successful organizations have to bring people together to reach a critical mass where individualism ( the hunter gatherer approach where I’m always looking for the next company to work for) and they have to remove barriers that prevent the flow of ideas. But somewhere in the process, leaders who want to build enduring, viable, and progressive communities have to create structures where collective wisdom can emerge and replace the all powerful leader.

Diamond’s argument that the tribal backwoodsmen of New Guinea, where he has conducted research for years, are equally as intelligent as the most sophisticated Wall Street Banker, rings true in the context of long term environmental factors that prevented the flow, development, and focus of ideas. For today’s leaders, a similar analysis requiring examining perhaps the past couple of decades rather than eight millenniums may yield some important insights in understanding what will produce the winner and losers in the years ahead.

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