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 / Fourth Quarter 1996 / Issue 5(originally published by Booz & Company)


Why C.E.O.'s Succeed (and Why They Fail): Hunters and Gatherers in the Corporate Life

The Camp

Hunting and gathering "camps" usually comprise about 30 people, from up to six families. The business of the camp -- hunting, gathering, cooking, building -- is done by temporary working groups as defined above. Though many jobs in a camp are separated by sex, little other specialization exists; today's hunter may be tomorrow's gatherer or hut-builder, although special skills such as stone tool making are recognized by all.

The hunting-gathering camp does not admit to having a leader; in fact, members of the camp will deny there is a leader. They will say, "We're all leaders." Nonetheless, a member of a nearby camp will say, "That's Joe's camp."

The camp thus does have a person who facilitates decisions. He or she does not command, but is respected because of knowledge, judgment and skill in organizing opinion. He or she does not give orders,(4) but focuses the decision-making process. Decision-making in a camp is a political, deliberative, consensual process. The camp's elders are expected to choose courses of action that are acceptable to the camp, and to accept suggestions from everyone. The whole camp behaves in a consensual manner and there is strong social pressure to conform. (In functioning camps, all members are interested in the facts, are fully informed of them, continuously discuss them and are aware of the various alternatives being considered.) At no time are the people in the camp invited to solve a problem as a group, nor do they wish or expect to do so.

Where a consensus is not found and distrust and disagreement linger, the usual solution is for the smaller faction to leave, striking off on its own. This is a fairly normal event, as families frequently move from camp to camp; but it is not without risk. The faction that takes off risks its very survival if a new camp receptive to it cannot be found.

When a camp grows to about 50 people, it becomes unstable and splits into two or more camps. This pattern of size-related instability is repeated in organizations of all kinds across human society.

The Hierarchy

The tribe, which may encompass several camp-sized groups, is a hierarchy. Hierarchical organizations have a clearly defined leader, and often many strata of authority. They have clear lines of authority, and no inherent means to achieve consensus. They evolved as a means of providing a mechanism for relations with other tribes (including commerce and war), for conducting religious observances and to allow occupational specialization. But they had the fortuitous result of solving the problem of instability in large organizations. The tribal hierarchy made it possible for more than 50 people to live and work together, at the cost of personal and group autonomy.

Simple tribes are organized into local groups of a few hundred, each with its own leadership. More complex tribes are organized into regional chiefdoms of several thousands, each with a hierarchy of leaders.

The State

In the archaic world, states eventually evolved to organize much larger populations, often living together in cities and relying on market exchange. It was at this time that real bureaucracies emerged, both to solve efficiently the problems of large groups and to control those groups for the will of dictatorial rulers.

With industrialization and cheap transportation, people began to live together in even larger groups. The hierarchical society then developed fully and became the preferred method of managing any continuing enterprise employing more than a handful of people. At first, these were outright dictatorships, but improvements in communication, education and the economy led to a revision of societal values so that now all members of hierarchical societies have some voice. This voice varies from union grievance procedures through election of leaders and managers through public approval of certain actions to formal consensus meetings; however, the structure of any stable organization of more than 50 to 100 people is some form of hierarchy.

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