Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

The Next 1000 Years

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I was on a business trip in Italy when the driver of the car indicated to me that we were traveling along the Appian Way. I was a bit stunned. Here I was on a business trip, where you typically see the airport, the inside of a taxi, a hotel and meeting room, all accouterments of the modern world, and I was cruising in a car on a road that was more than 2000 years old! I asked them to stop the car and I got out and touched the road. Majestic old trees lined both sides of the cobblestone straight as an arrow roadway and as we made our way along it, I got chills as I thought about the Roman Legions perhaps marching along the very road I now traversed. This was the roadway that helped Rome become an empire. Infrastructure matters, especially when it is a game changer – no one else had roadways like the Romans, allowing them to achieve things that others could not.

Let’s do a thought exercise. What would you do differently in your life if you really stretched out your time horizon, say you knew that you were going to live for 1000 years? Today we all seem to operate with a fairly short time horizon. I know I am thrilled if I get 10 years out of a car, others itch for a new one after 3-5 years. How would you feel if you knew you would be driving for the better part of 1000 years? What would you demand in a car? Does the Buick Century all of a sudden become more attractive; perhaps the Millennium series of various Dodge vehicles or maybe you would only shop the Infinity brand?

How would you educate yourself? Maybe I could take my time getting through college, say 50 years, and finally figure out calculus. It would probably take me that long, but then maybe new avenues would open to me. A Ph.D. would become the equivalent of a high school diploma at best and a new higher standard of academic excellence would need to be invented. (A new variation on an old joke – “What do you call someone with a Master’s degree?” – and the punch line is “a dropout”.)

What would you look for in a house or other dwelling? Only a 20-year guarantee on that roof? Can I get a roof with a 200-year guarantee? After all I don’t want to have to replace the roof constantly; I need something a little more durable. If your time horizon is 1000 years, how would you handle issues that today are considered relatively rare? For instance a 100 year storm may happen 10 times in your lifetime and be absolutely devastating to homes and buildings in its path, buildings that are not built to standards to last 1000 years. What about economic cycles or long term development, research or construction projects? How about natural resources? What natural resources are we using today in such a fashion that they will be sustainable in 1000 years time?

Why do you think banks are usually built out of bricks and stone, or with strong looking cement or marble columns? The bank wants to give the impression of longevity that they will be around for 1000 years. How would you feel about going into a bank branch located in a trailer on wheels to deposit your hard earned money? Might make you hesitate. Interesting things happen with a long-term time horizon. For instance if you deposited $1000.00 in a CD at 3% interest for 1000 years it would be worth $6,874,240,231,169,627.00 at maturity. That is 6 almost 7 quadrillion and represents a lot of money. But in 1000 years a quadrillion might not buy what it used to. Just to keep up with inflation at 3.01% during those 1000 years, you would need $7,575,079,084,827,028.00. In other words, .01% inflation above your interest rate would put you almost 1 quadrillion dollars down in purchasing power. What a bummer.     

What about relationships? Would you behave any differently if you knew that the argument you just had might linger for 1000 years? Would we not get into as many arguments or would they just last longer? A mother might say, “Johnny, go to your room and don’t come out until you are prepared to be civil to you sister”. Five years later…. Would we still enter into marriage or would some new form of relationship between men and women emerge? The average marriage today is said to last about 7 years and 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Daunting numbers if you might be around for 1000 years. Say you held off and did not get married until you were 100 years old, with an average marriage lasting 7 years that would mean you would have about 128 marriages in your lifetime. While there are a few celebrities today who approach that number for most of us something would have to change. (I must make mention here that my 28th wedding anniversary is coming up and I have no intention on aligning myself to the average duration of a marriage.)

It seems like our time horizons are getting shorter and shorter and that impacts our organizations and our careers as well. Public companies today are focused upon making next quarter’s goals, a 3 month time horizon, and those that do not are severely punished in the marketplace. Today’s marketplace clearly does not reward organizations for taking a long-term view.

Take a step back for a moment and take a very long-term view. How would you build a company if you wanted it to last for 1000 years? What would you do differently? How would it be structured? What emphasis would you place on product development and research, on sales and marketing, on quality, on maintaining its reputation? How would you recruit? What personnel policies and practices would you put into place? What competencies must the organization develop that would make it enduring? What would be sacred, unchanging during the life span of the organization and what would be malleable? And how much sense would it make to focus on the next quarter if you were aiming for a 1000 year time horizon?

There was an interview in a documentary about the construction of The Large Hadron Collider at CERN that sticks in my mind. CERN is part of the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The Large Hadron Collider is a new piece of equipment coming online (June 2008 is the estimated date for the first experiments to occur) and represents the culmination of a 13 year design and construction process and an engineering tour-de-force that has pushed the state-of-the art to the limit. The Large Hadron Collider will allow physicists to go where they have never been able to go before and to test out theories on the fundamental make-up of the universe. A construction engineer who was involved in building the Large Hadron Collider was being interviewed and in the project construction reviews he indicated that he is continually asked, “what unforeseen events or obstacles have you been able to foresee?” You could literally see his blood pressure rise as he turned red thinking about what was in his mind clear lunacy to ask about how he has foreseen the unforeseen. If you were building an organization with a 1000 year time horizon, while you might not be able to foresee the unforeseen your organization certainly needs to be able to handle the unforeseen. How would you build that in?

James Collins and Jerry Porras wrote “Built to Last” a best selling book about what makes companies endure for the long-term. But more than endure, what makes them the standout leader in their respective industries. They suggest that a company develop core values; things that hold true for the long-term and that around those core values organizations learn how to change those things that need to be adaptable in changing market conditions.  They matched up companies that they felt were truly outstanding organizations against those that while successful they viewed as second tier. It is interesting to me to note that a number of companies that they viewed as outstanding, while still successful by most measures have recently fallen upon harder times. These include companies such as Ford, Citicorp, HP, and IBM. Did they lose their vision, their core? What caused the decline? Maybe they could do a follow up book on how outstanding companies lose their way. It reminds me a bit of the splash that the service profit chain at Sears made when it hit the Harvard Business Review, and while it represents a lot of very good work that approach did not prevent Sears from almost going belly up. The fundamentals need to be in place and the organization needs to be able to cope with changing market conditions in addition to holding onto their cores, their essence.  

So what if your organization was to be built for 1000 years, would you do anything different? What if your life was to last for 1000 years, would you do anything different? And I think most importantly would we derive any shorter-term benefit by thinking with longer-term time horizons? Maybe I should try to tackle calculus one more time.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 13, 2009 at 7:57 am

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