What goes up must come down, or said another way, that which evolves eventually stops evolving.
While technology may be the greater enabler of change, human nature, ironically, is the disabling scourge of mankind’s progress. We get in the way of evolving us. And there’s no better evidence of that than the track record of empires. Back in the early 1930s, a slightly odd but thoughtful fellow by the name of Sir John Glubb wrote a wee 26-page treatise called The Fate of Empires. Google it. If you don’t want to read the whole thing allow me to summarize his key points. The first is a calculation. All empires pretty much last for about the same amount of time, 250 years. Take a gander at the evidence:
Empire Peak Period # of Years
Assyria 859-612 B.C. 247
Persia 538-330 B.C. 208
Greece 331-100 B.C. 231
Roman Republic 260-27 B.C. 233
Roman Empire 27 B.C.-180 A.D. 207
Arab Empire A.D. 634-880 246
Mameluke Empire 1250-1517 267
Ottoman Empire 1320-1570 250
Spain 1500-1750 250
Romanov Russia 1682-1916 234
Britain 1700-1950 250
Kinda crazy, right? You would have thought that some of these jingoistic juggernauts reigned for millennia, not a couple hundred years. Why the consistent 250-year shelf life of dominant rule? Well, the Empire World according to Glubb follows a remarkable consistent rise and fall that while not perfectly time based appears time correlated. He identified six stages of the rise and fall, stages that can certainly be ascribed to empires but just as easily to businesses, family dynasties, startups and dare I suggest maybe even your organization, albeit on a different timescale. Hell, it might even apply to us.
Here are the Glubb’s stages, with a little color commentary by me.
Stage I: The Age of Pioneers. This is when the entity is focused on forging a new path, carving out a better life, a better existence. The effort required is so great that people can’t turn on each other (foreshadowing the Age of Decadence.) This is how startups start up. And the pilgrims did their pilgrim thing.
Stage II: The Age of Conquests is about beating the other guy, doing whatever it takes to win. And winning brings people together. To the victor goes the spoils, until the victor becomes spoiled (foreshadowing the Age of Decadence again!) Conquering begins when your business needs assets and cash flow.
Stage III: The Age of Commerce. This is when the wars quiet down, the warriors go home and trade their weapons for tools to enable the selling and buying of goods. You’ve got customers, revenue, and can make payroll. Life is gentler, most people are doing A-Okay and some are doing a lot better. A divide begins to emerge and complacency begins to rear its ugly little head.
Stage IV: The Age of Affluence. As commerce really kicks in, the citizenry (employees) starts doing better and better, more chickens in every pot, more cars in every garage, more flat screens on every wall. Life is good, luxury is better, money is best. Year-end bonuses all around!
Stage V: The Age of Intellect is the leading edge of the beginning of the end. Presumptuous wealth leads to mental hubris as more people start staring at their belly buttons and forgetting what got them to where they are. The importance of the collective is lost as the individual and me-ness begin to take center stage. In companies, doing less and mitigating risk become the standard operating procedures. In countries, self-promotion becomes the order of the day.
Stage VI: An extended period of presumptuous wealth and more goo-goo eyed hubris inevitably results in The Age of Decadence. Decadence, in Medieval Latin, equals “decay” plus “to fall.” It is the age where the social fabric begins to both fray and rot. Blinders become the most popular headgear, isolationism becomes the new religion, materialism is the golden calf, and the government/company tries to pull back from over-extending welfare supports, like health care. Big bubbles appear and often burst. In the Age of Decadence, the leadership divides, fear, greed, and pessimism emerge as the tenor of the times, and it appears as if the populace is just getting dumber, sillier and more selfish by the minute. And there’s no way to go back. Pleasant picture, right? Yuk.
And if there was a seventh stage, which there should be, I would call it the Age of the Hangover. Even if financial bankruptcy and dissolution are somehow avoided, structural breakdown occurs. It is the age that conjures up many of the dreaded symptoms of a hangover: mental fuzziness, emotional exhaustion, social dehydration, financial regret, cultural cotton mouth and maybe even a little shame…you get the picture. Japan’s “lost decade”, which is really a lost thirty years, is the nation state hangover of the modern ages. RIM and Blackberry is the recovering alcoholic who can’t shake his/her throbbing headache. Sears is the bleary eyed old guy, wondering what went wrong and feeling really nauseous. The suffering is debilitating. And it’s not clear when or if the pain ever goes away. Depressing right. Don’t worry, there’s hope.
If you read between the lines of the last three of Glubb’s six Ages, it’s humans screwing everything up. The minute society and a business start believing its poo doesn’t stink and that they have got “it” all figured out is the minute the upstarts turning down. And that applies as readily to companies as it does to countries and empires.
So if we the humans are the ones at fault, that also implies that we the humans can fix it, or we can avoid it to begin with. So, what exactly do we need to do? It’s actually kind of simple.
Suck fear out of the system.
It turns out that if you drill deeper into why hubris and blinders form in organizations and empires as they mature, it’s because as success stacks up and organizations get bigger, people actually get more fearful and more hesitant not less. I know, I know, weird. But think about it. The more wealth that is amassed the more there is to lose, and a quietly desperate belief emerges that what got us here will get us wherever we want to go. Why risk it? The more people that pile into an office building every day, the greater the likelihood the Dunbar effect is taking effect. This is the social psychology theory proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s that claims that people can only handle up to 150 “stable relationships.” So when the office count exceeds 150, trust plummets, and when trust plummets, innovation comes to a grinding halt. Apparently, Dunbar rather cheekily explained the calculation as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
I can attest to the effect. In the mid-90s, when my company topped 150 staffers for the first time, and I could no longer remember every employee’s name, storm clouds of cultural dysfunction and innovation malaise began forming. I came to realize that people were no longer being open and honest, they were no longer unabashedly sharing their opinions and ideas, and worse, they were avoiding doing so. That realization prompted me to coin a term “The Avoidance Inventory” and articulate the idea that problems appear in organizations (and families) when we lose the ability to gently confront one another. The issues aren’t resolved but worse the avoidances don’t go away, they get placed in a virtual inventory whose existence denigrates all subsequent communications between us. Eventually the Avoidance Inventory overflows and that’s when the really bad stuff happens, like divorce or Chapter 11.
As one remedial step to try to solve the growing problem associated with the Dunbar Effect I wrote this poem and shared it with the 150 plus employees of my firm. They liked the poem, but kept avoiding each other.
Ode to our Avoidance Inventories
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me
A Mercedes Benz
My avoidance inventory is climbing
I must make amends
Give me the strength
To challenge my peers
Give me the conviction
To quell my worst fears
Allow me to confront
Both demons and friends
For their sake and mine
And for positive ends
Let me approach my relationships
With new candor and heart
And have our souls move closer
And not farther apart
For we all must realize
That we are both lock and key
That our future is dependent
On seeing the other as me.
Chris Colbert, 1994
Avoidance is fear. And whether a function of business success or sheer growth in headcount, fear is the manifest enemy of innovation. Everyone, from the leaders to the line employees becomes afraid of losing, afraid of risk-taking, afraid of confronting the truth, afraid of being found out, hell, afraid of saying hello. As fear grows, biases take hold, and a prevailing notion that new things won’t work, new things aren’t welcome, or simply the senseless sensibility that we’ve got it all figured out begins to dominate the ether of every conversation. We circle our wagons to protect what we have, and in doing so, progress comes to a grinding halt.
So the task my friend is to suck fear out of the system and replace it with love and respect. When you do it does not mean arguments won’t happen, it just means that they happen less frequently and the outcome will be far more satisfying for all parties. Lead from your heart not from your head. Show vulnerability and a willingness to share the unfiltered truth of you. In doing so you make it psychologically safe for others to be who they are, and in doing that, you motivate them to give you all the can. Fixate on creating a work environment that demands empathy and rewards personal honesty. And take a page out of the fabric innovator W.L. Gore’s playbook, don’t build office buildings for more than 150 people.
When you replace fear with love and respect, a slew of other things will change too. You will find yourselves celebrating failure as much as you celebrate success. You will start rewarding risk-taking. You will start to push ego out the door and welcome in a selflessness in its stead. And from all that you will continue to rise and in doing so significantly reduce the risk of a fall.