Why Societies Collapse

Excerpts from a Jared Diamond talk:

In trying to understand the collapses of ancient societies, I quickly realised that its not enough to look at the inadvertent impact of humans on their environment. Its usually more complicated. Instead Ive arrived at a checklist of five things that I look at to understand the collapses of societies, and in some cases all five of these things are operating. Usually several of them are.

The first of these factors is environmental damage, inadvertent damage to the environment through means such as deforestation, soil erosion, salinisation, over-hunting etc.

The second item on the checklist is climate change, such as cooling or increased aridity. People can hammer away at their environment and get away with it as long as the climate is benign, warm, wet, and the people are likely to get in trouble when the climate turns against them, getting colder or drier. So climate change and human environmental impact interact, not surprisingly.

Still a third consideration is that one has to look at a societys relations with hostile neighbours. Most societies have chronic hostile relations with some of their neighbours and societies may succeed in fending off those hostile neighbours for a long time. Theyre most likely to fail to hold off the hostile neighbours when the society itself gets weakened for environmental or any other reasons, and thats given rise for example, to the long-standing debate about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Was the conquest by Barbarians really a fundamental cause, or was it just that Barbarians were at the frontiers of the Roman Empire for many centuries? Rome succeeded in holding them off as long as Rome was strong, and then when Rome got weakened by other things, Rome failed, and fell to the Barbarians. And similarly, we know that there were military factors in the fall of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So relations with hostiles interacts with environmental damage and climate change.

Similarly, relations with friendlies interacts. Almost all societies depend in part upon trade with neighbouring friendly societies, and if one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses for environmental reasons, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners. Its something that interests us today, given that we are dependent for oil upon imports from countries that have some political stability in a fragile environment.

And finally in addition to those four factors on the checklist, one always has to ask about peoples cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognise their problems and others not?

Strategy Maps

HBS Working Knowledge has an interview with Robert Kaplan and David Norton who have authored a book “Strategy Maps: Converting Intangible Assets into Tangible Outcomes.” Excerpts from the interview:

A strategy map provides a visual representation of the organization’s strategy. This is truly an example of how one picture is more powerful than 1,000 words (or even twenty-five ad hoc performance measures). The financial and customer objectives describe the outcomes the organization wants to achieve; objectives in the internal and learning and growth perspectives describe how the organization intends to achieve these outcomes. The discipline of creating the strategy map of linked objectives in the four perspectives engages the executive team, and often promotes much greater clarity and commitment to the strategy.

Once created, the strategy map is a powerful communication tool that enables all employees to understand the strategy, and translate it into actions they can take to help the organization succeed.

Most organizations identify a single person to be the steward or organizer of the strategy map. This person ensures that data are continually fed into the map and Balanced Scorecard to keep them refreshed, organizes the monthly report distributionusually electronicallyand sets the agenda for the monthly management meeting to discuss performance against the strategy.

[Michael] Porter argues that strategy is determined by a unique combination of activities that deliver a different value proposition than competitors or the same value proposition better. The strategy map framework allows companies to identify and link together the critical internal processes and human, information, and organization capital that deliver the value proposition differently or better. Thus, the process of creating a strategy map and Balanced Scorecard translates the formulated strategy into specific objectives, measures, targets, and initiatives in the four inter-related perspectives.