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What Societal Collapse Can Teach Us About Organizational Fitness

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed focuses on understanding why certain civilizations collapse.
  • Through his research he comes up with a five-point framework that he uses to understand societal collapse (not all are necessary and he lists them in no specific order).
  • Diamond's framework can be useful in understanding where organizations are failing.

Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed focuses on understanding why certain civilizations collapse. His elegantly crafted analysis and soft-spoken demeanor takes readers from Easter Island to Norse Greenland with a lot of stops along the way. Through his research he comes up with a five-point framework that he uses to understand societal collapse (not all are necessary and he lists them in no specific order).

  1. Environmental damage: The extent to which a culture damages its own environment.
  2. Climate change: Changes in natural forces.
  3. Hostile neighbors: Relationships with enemies.
  4. Friendly trade partners: Degree of supportive partners.
  5. Response to challenges: How will a society respond to its problems.

If this is a framework that impacts entire civilizations, what might we learn in applying it closer to home? Here are some questions in each of the five categories that you can ask about your organization to see where it might it might fit long term in Diamond's "fail/succeed" spectrum.

1. Are the actions of my organization supporting or damaging the environment in which it competes? Is it risking additional short-term gains without considering the impact on the future system as a whole?

2. What natural changes in the market are in play? Does my organization understand those changes and is it prepared?

3. What competitors want to take away my organization's business? Who would want my clients if my organization could not serve them tomorrow? Is my organization taking appropriate steps to make sure that its offerings are competitive enough to keep them at bay?

4. Is my organization aligned with partners and supportive organizations that will allow it to thrive and flourish?

5. What is my organization's overall response mechanism? Does it wait until problems are already here or is it proactive in anticipating change and preparing itself in advance? How will my organization know that it is responding in time and at the appropriate level?

Many of these questions get asked in some form or another in any business plan, but it is easy downplay their significance, especially when we've all become a bit numb to the business lingo. The value in applying Diamond’s framework is that it provides a fresh perspective since, in his analysis of various cultures and societies, the stakes are so high.

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