Slowly over a period of time it is possible for individuals to build a sense of complacency with the status quo, to accept organizational processes and procedures as they are, not to push the envelope as it needs to be pushed in order to progress, to keep the organization sharp. We do things a certain way because that is they way we have done it in the past, it is comfortable and we know it works. There is less risk in that….or is there?
There is a well documented innate tendency on the part of humans to seek consistency and there are many benefits to organizations on being able to provide a consistent environment for their employees and consistent products for their customers. Consistency though is not complacency. Consistency is being able to perform in a similar fashion on whatever your process or products happen to be and complacency is being satisfied with the current state of your process or products. Consistency is good, complacency is bad.
The innate tendency towards consistency can lead towards complacency with the status quo. The organization and the people within it strive for consistency (to the benefit of the customers) which is much more difficult to achieve in an organization that is constantly changing. So if we don’t change things, it is easier to be consistent, pleasing both customers and employees, but risking being lulled into complacency. The best organizations are those that can become rapidly consistent around delivering new products and implementing new procedures.
Complacency with status quo can be considered a poison, slowly eating away at what made the organization originally come into being and successful in the first place. Entrenched complacency with the status quo to any organization is the beginning of the end of that organization’s existence. Other new organizations that are not tied to the past, that are not burdened by legacy systems or processes will come along and surpass the complacent; sometimes slowly and sometimes not so slowly making them obsolete. Some organizations get shaken out of their complacency and can rebound with a reinvigorated spirit, others simply fade away.
Mithridatism is the slow ingestion of non-lethal amounts of a poison over an extended period of time in order to build tolerance or partial immunity against the poison. The word has it origins from Mithridates VI the king of Pontus (a small area on the Black Sea that is now part of Turkey) who was so consumed with the notion that someone was trying to poison him that he regularly ingested small doses of poison. Legend has it that assassins used the technique in order to be able to have a meal with their intended victim and suffer no ill effects, while the victim fell dead from the poisoned meal. Today some who handle poisonous snakes for a living practice this in an attempt to build up immunity in case they are accidentally bitten. (Please do not try this at home).
Standards of performance evolve and change. Product quality standards and process standards need to change within organizations if they are to remain competitive and keep their customers. How do you determine and at what level do you set your operational standards?
The recent tragic collapse of the coal mine in Crandall Canyon, Utah with 6 miners still missing and the deaths of several of the rescuers in a further collapse brought renewed focus on the issues surrounding how dangerous mining is as an occupation. And even though the standard for mine safety is set at zero accidents as the goal, each year there are deaths.
There are the aspirational standards (zero accidents) then there are the real operational standards (procedures) that lead to specific outcomes. Aspirational standards mean nothing unless the operational standards in place are aligned with them and supported. Would it be possible to set new operational standards, standards that would allow a mine to operate with zero deaths? Yes it would. But the current costs of doing so would likely mean that no mining would be done in this country and the jobs that go along with it would disappear. Rightly or wrongly there is a tolerance on the part of the employees to accept a certain level of danger in order to be employed, on the part of the mining company to maximize its profits and on the part of our society as a whole in order to obtain cheaper goods. We have to question though whether we have become complacent with operational standards for how mines operate – the slow ingestion of a poison leading in this case not to immunity but to death.
In the USA in 2006 the death toll from mining was 72. Contrast that to China where in 2006 the death toll from mining was 4746 (reported). However, in the early part of the 20th century the number of deaths in the USA from mining accidents was approximately 1000 per year. Does this mean we cut China some slack or do we hold it to a higher standard than the USA held itself as it industrialized? Do we have any right to hold China to a higher standard? The only justification for holding developing countries to a higher standard is globalization, a factor that did not exist in the early 20th century. Why? It is due to the new interdependencies that exist within a global marketplace and what can happen to everyone if a major component of that global marketplace collapses.
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed examines why various societies over the millennia collapsed, their people at best mere memory in the historical record. Diamond lists eight historical factors and four newer factors which have and may contribute to the collapse of societies:
- Deforestation and habitat destruction
- Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
- Water management problems
- Effects of introduced species on native species
- Human population growth
- Increased per-capita impact of people
- Human-caused climate change
- Buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment
- Energy shortages
- Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.
The chief difference between what has happen to societies that have collapsed in the past and today’s society is that the elements that he lists are now occurring on a global basis rather than being limited to a single society or country. The ominous foreshadowing that occurs in the book is how similar we as a global community are to the societies from the past that have disappeared. And that the solutions that need to be applied to prevent a potential pending catastrophe need to be applied on a global basis.
It might be a pipedream for now but the adoption of global standards in how goods and services get produced and delivered may be what is required to prevent our global impending collapse if the storyline in the book were to play out. If we continue that storyline as it is described will the collapsed happen in 50 years, 100 years or a thousand? It is hard to say, but as a species can we afford to be so shortsighted that we take that risk? Should we be complacent? Should goods and services and the production of those goods and services meet a common world-wide standard that certifies them as compliant, not from simply a quality standpoint but from a societal standpoint? Certifying that the impact that the production has on our shared global environment and on those who produced them was done in a sustainable fashion and without a variety of forms of labor abuse? Is that a new ISO certification?
The Kyoto Protocol split the world into Annex I countries (the developed world) and Non-Annex I countries (developing countries). Annex I countries participating in the Protocol have accepted greenhouse gas emission reductions to 5% below their 1990 levels collectively. Non-Annex I countries do not have emission limits. Some in the USA currently believe that by requiring a reduction of greenhouse gases that we will hurt the USA economy, and by extension the world’s economy, while some of the fastest growing economies, rapidly becoming the most polluting as well would be under no such restrictions.
The developing countries argue that the developed world had their opportunity to grow without restrictions that allowed them to become the economic powerhouses that they are today. And that their citizens (of the developing countries) have a right to a better life, similar to one enjoyed by others. Some of the developed countries (e.g. USA), argue that signing onto the Protocol would spell economic disaster and would give others an unfair advantage. They are all being shortsighted.
Given the vastly greater interlocking nature of the world today, the mutual interdependencies and the likelihood that if we go down as a global society, we will all go down together, I would argue that we in fact do need to hold China, the others in the developing world and the companies operating there (including mining) to a higher standard than we held ourselves as we developed. We also need to hold ourselves to an even higher standard – a much higher standard. Why? Because we need to lead by example, not to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing what is right for society from a global perspective. If America wants to preserve its current preeminent status as the world’s only true superpower and not take the path of other empires that have preceded us we need to be in the forefront of issues of world import. Yes, America is an empire (seemingly a reluctant empire) and yes we do have unparalleled and unchallengeable military supremacy if we choose to use it, however our real power and our legitimacy comes from the economic prosperity we spread and standards of behavior we, as a nation and a people, employ.
In the past, wars were often the causes of technological leaps, change and growth. Many technological advances as well as advances in medicine came out of the necessity generated from a war environment and the corresponding flow of funding. Space exploration has also been a source of much similar advancement. We as a global society have a new war to fight, one which many do not yet see, and a war upon which the future of the entire planet may ride. That war is one of developing unparalleled global prosperity as broadly as possible in such a fashion that the world itself can sustain all of us. There is only one country in the world that can lead that war today, and that is the USA. The USA must step up, rally the rest of the world to fight this battle with us and assume a leadership role in making sure that we as a global society survive. Great things lie ahead for those who engage with us in winning this battle.
The flip side of this argument is that there have been numerous doomsayers over the years, concerned about the manner of all sorts of things. The world will run out of food, a global pandemic will occur, a nuclear war will make the world uninhabitable, Yellowstone will erupt once again, a neighboring star will go supernova wiping us out in less than an eye blink, or an unexpected asteroid will do the job. Critics point out that all of these doomsday prophesies have proven to be false alarms in the past. Of course they have been because we are still here, but that doesn’t mean that you ignore the potential and don’t do your best to prevent potential catastrophes because you have not had one previously – that would be complacency.
Can we be complacent about what may be happening to our planet? Can organizations, whether they are companies or countries push themselves to think outside of the box, to try a new approach, a new way of thinking about this interconnected world in which we now live? I am up for it, how about you?
The story of King Mithridates VI of Pontus does not have a happy ending. His gambit to protect himself from poisoning had an unintended consequence. He lost a war and his kingdom to Pompey (a Roman general) and tried to commit suicide by ingesting poison. Because of his acquired immunity the poison did not work and he had to have a mercenary run him through with his sword. Mithradatism when applied has a very narrow application. You may develop some immunity to one specific poison, but there are innumerable other poisons and complacencies that can do you or your company in.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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