Have you read the eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization recently?
Probably not, but the authors’ conclusions apply to business as much as they do human history.
After Will and Ariel Durant finished this work, they pushed away from the detailed studies of various ages in history and asked, “Are there common lessons about the rise and fall of civilisations?”
They found that the influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.
So, 2000 years ago, location was a really big deal. Having access to resources or limited competition or friendly weather systems drastically affected the success of your civilisation. However, as technology grew, location became less important.
For example, once farming irrigation was developed, it was less important for you crops to be next to a river.
This same principle rings true for our organisations.
It turns out that many factors become less important as technology grows and the world shrinks. The Durants claim, “Only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform possibilities into fact.”
That’s what you and I aspire to do every day.
In each of our industries, we attempt to transform possibilities into facts. Only a similar combination can make a culture take form despite a thousand natural obstacles.
Because of this, they conclude, “Man, not the earth, makes civilisation.”
If the importance of geographic and competitive factors matters less over time, then what predicts the human factors, our ability to engage in collective effort, that uniquely transform possibility into fact?
Two essential human factors are innovation and execution.
Most of the literature we read suggests we need to pick between the two. If you’re competing in a commodity industry you focus on execution. If you’re competing in high value-added services, then innovation is most important even at the expense of your ability to execute predictably.
But we wondered, “Are there organisations that are capable of both innovation and execution?”
If so, is the combination more than just additive? How does innovation combined with execution increase the capacity to produce results?
Let’s think about this using software as a metaphor. Is it possible to not just focus on the apps?
Many of us in human resources and development think that our organisations are idiosyncratic. If we’re a military organisation, we need a culture that respects authority and chain of command. If we’re in electronic consumer products, we value autonomy hoping to boost our innovation. If we’re in hospitality or financials, we look for unique attributes from employees to reflect the industry.
These are the apps, but we didn’t want to just study apps.
We wanted to find an operating system underneath those apps shared by all human systems.
Think about operating systems. Your laptop can have the same system as your mobile phone. Your nearest gas pump and your refrigerator may even have that same operating system. This same system enables drastically different apps.
The operating system is fundamental because controls how the applications access the basic hardware. Some operating systems are faster, more reliable, and better able to absorb innovation and change than others.
The same applies for our human operating systems. We’ve found that there are organisational operating systems that improve our capacity to innovate, execute, stabilise, and adapt.
Too often we focus on the tip of the iceberg: the application level. We look for a unique strategy, process, or product we need for a specific situation and hope they’ll make a lasting change throughout our entire organisation.
Instead, we want to go deeper to uncover the cultural operating system that predicts the success of our organisation.