“How Western Civilization Could Collapse”

The title above is also the title of an article by Rachel Nuwer in BBC Future, a fascinating examination of the causes of societal collapse using research on this issue from a wide collection of experts. The implications for the current world situation are thought-provoking indeed.

In addition to the fall of civilizations, it occurred to me that in many ways Nuwer is also describing the fall of organizations.

She shares insights from political economist Benjamin Friedman, who wrote about the dangerous scramble for scarce resources and rejection of anyone outside one’s immediate circle. I immediately began pondering the ways in which an organization’s funds are distributed…and the fights for a larger share…combined with people in silos looking out for themselves without thinking about the impact on the rest of the organization.

She describes computer models developed by Safa Motesharrei of the University of Maryland that track how economic stratification accelerates downfall. Sounds to me like the battles going on over the widening gap between increasing executive compensation and the decreasing or at best, stable compensation of everyone else in organizations.

The article also includes the wisdom of Thomas Homer-Dixon of Balsillie School of International Affairs, who thinks that the increasing occurrence of nonlinearities (sudden unexpected changes) is a sign of danger ahead. Think about how the rapid, rise of Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon have led to huge disruption and business failures in their respective industries.

Complexity has a cost is the thesis of Joseph Taintor of Utah State University. It takes more and more energy to maintain systems as their complexity increases. This leads to greater and greater resources dedicated to keeping things running. When reading this, I flashed on how often I talk with clients about the importance of simplicity: the need to keep things simple rather than ramp up complexity along with growth.

Nuwer’s article illuminated how one thing after another leads to the collapse of civilizations and organizations. Clearly it is not a pretty future for either…nor for the people caught in the middle.

As people become more dissatisfied with their situation and fearful about what is to come, resentment and anger set in, accelerated by a tendency to blame others for their problems. Balkanization takes root and a bad situation becomes worse.

But there is a way past collapse. Homer-Dixon shares the tools necessary for surviving and prospering. They include using reason, science, and fact to guide decisions. Staving off collapse and building a path to future success also requires an extraordinary leader able to speak to all and to unite everyone against the forces of disintegration. And it requires people of exceptional goodwill able and willing to work together to solve global problems and work for the common good.

There are examples of both civilizations and organizations that have managed to use these tools to guide them forward. Norway and Denmark are always high up on the lists of best countries to live in. For six years in a row, Google has topped Fortune’s Best Companies To Work For list. Wegman’s is number 2 and has been on the list for 20 years.

How is your organization doing? Is it stuck in silos fighting over scarce resources or is it working collaboratively to use resources most effectively for the entire organization? Is it becoming more and more complex each day or working hard to keep things simple, understandable, and easy to manage? Is it filled with people fearful about what is coming and hunkering down or excited about what is going on and envisioning a bright future?

What kind of a leader are you? One who builds silos and accelerates economic stratification and division, or one who uses reason, science, and fact to address problems and increase the common good?

It’s your choice which path you follow: to collapse or to prosperity.







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