Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Organizational Aliens

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There are people out there who believe that some of the ancient wonders of the world such as the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge could not possibly have been built by “primitive” man; the pieces of stone were too massive, the joints too perfect, the engineering far too complex for early man to have done this unaided. Some of these structures are lined up to predict the turnings of the seasons, marking the summer or winter solstice or are lined up to “true” north or have dimensions that were developed according to the golden ratio in order to achieve a aesthetically pleasing design; feats that seem impossible to many of us today, because many of us personally would have no idea how to accomplish them. So how could early or primitive man?

Some have gone so far as to point to these feats as “proof” of past alien visits to the Earth to assist us on the path to civilization. These kinds of beliefs often simply uncover our own ignorance and can be made when people equate early man or primitive man with primitive or a lack of intelligence. While I may question the intelligence of man, given some of the things as a species we have done, such as despoiling our environment, our current level of intelligence has been with us since Homo sapiens came into the picture. Just as it is a mistake to underestimate the intelligence of your adversaries, it is a mistake to underestimate the intelligence of early man. We are Homo sapiens, or wise man, and if we put our minds to it we can accomplish quite a bit.

A question I have asked myself occasionally is how do excellent organizations arise? Assume for a moment that we can agree on the definition of an excellent organization, the question is does mankind have the ability to create a Google type organization on our own? Or will the creation of Google as well as some other really excellent organizations be pointed to by some future generation as further evidence of alien visitations?  Organizational aliens who came to Earth to show us the way towards organizational improvement? Are Larry Page and Sergey Brin really of this planet or are they here just to help us get on our feet? 

The Rare Earth Hypothesis states that the life on Earth arose due to an extremely rare combination of events – one in a billion or more. If you believe in the Rare Earth hypothesis life in the universe would be very uncommon, occurring only very occasionally.  The principle of mediocrity is just the opposite. It states that the Earth is nothing special. It is a typical rocky planet, revolving around a very average star, located in the Milky Way, an average galaxy. And if you believe in that hypothesis, life in the universe would be much more likely to arise on multiple planets.

If we use those analogies to think about the rise of excellent organizations, are they more like the Rare Organizational Hypothesis, excellent organization arise due to an extremely rare combination of events (e.g. very profitable, dominates industry segment, changes the paradigm) and hence come along just every great once in a while. Or are they more like the principle of mediocrity (possibly a poor choice of labels), whereby every organization has within it the potential to become truly excellent. All we need to do is unlock the potential.

Personally, when previously asked, “what do I get out of my work, what do I find rewarding”? My response has been consistent. I work with organizations that tend to have relatively large numbers of employees. Through my work I strive to make the organization a more effective, a more efficient place. At the same time if I can make the work environment 10% or 15% better for the people who work in that environment, I feel that I have done my part, if not to improve the whole world then to improve the piece of it that I can touch.

But somehow deep inside me I find that answer is not good enough. I want to push this Homo sapien to the edge. I want to create and be part of excellent organizations. I don’t want to just go along for the ride, I want to be part of something special. I want to be able to point to a lasting artifact, a pyramid and say I had a hand in that. For that to be more likely to come true I am rooting for the principle of mediocrity (that true excellence can be common), and that what we need to do is unlock the potential that is deep inside all organizations.

But there is a warning sign waving out there. It is the Fermi Paradox. It states that if alien life is common, given the age of the universe, we should not have to look very hard to find them. Homo sapiens have been building organizations for a very long time. How easy it is to find truly excellent ones?

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 12, 2009 at 2:23 pm

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