Build or burn?

The corporate hunter-gatherer

Evidence from archaeology apparently shows that ancient hunter-gatherers were healthier than the generations that followed.  Living close together in towns and cities made us vulnerable to disease.  Civilisation was bad for our health.  I’ve often wondered if the analogy can be stretched to companies.  Does the harsher, less predictable environment of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle make for a more successful company or employee? Or do the benefits of teamwork, stability and shared culture matter more?

While watching recent natural history programmes on the BBC, the thing that hit me hardest is how often predators are unsuccessful in catching their prey.  If they can’t find them, or are beaten off, or are out-run, they go hungry.  It’s something that hadn’t occurred to me when watching earlier programmes of lions lounging around in the shade.  The similarity with the business world is striking.  For every successful new enterprise, there will have been many smaller ventures than have gone to the wall unnoticed.  For every successful tender, there will have been several other quotes rejected.

Excepting a few people arguing from a political viewpoint, most people accept that competition among companies is a good thing for society.  It leads, in general, to limited resources going to people that can make best use of them, and responds quicker to changes in the market.  But most people would take the opposite view when it comes to employees.  Im not sure.

It has been my experience that people in a hire and fire culture, or under short-term contracts, are likely to be harder-working, more flexible workers than their colleagues with permanent employment contracts in more paternalistic companies.  The effect is more pronounced the stronger the employment protections become until, crazily, in some organisations people behave as if redundancy, and the large package that comes with it, is a ‘reward’ to be attained.

Even so, it seems unlikely that harshness and unpredictability in the working environment are more likely to produce the benefits of ‘civilisation’.  It just seems too unkind, too risky.  Isnt it better to give people the time and space to be innovative and chase long-term goals?  The benefits seem worth sacrificing a bit of productivity.

I’m conflicted because working in a successful organisation is a fun, energising and exciting experience, worth sacrificing a bit of peace of mind.  Such organisations tend to be more admired than liked, but maybe that is the path you need to follow to succeed and flourish.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it is, I’m just not very comfortable with the consequences.

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