MyFondia VirtualLawyer
November 30, 2012

What can we learn from a management consultant from the stone age?

Some 150,000 years our foremothers and forefathers lived on the savannas of Africa, moving from place to place, getting their food from wild plants and animals and using tools of wood, stone and other materials available to them. This first phase of humanity lasted for a long time – it is only a bit more than 10,000 years ago we humans abandoned the hunter-gatherer life style, moved into permanent settlements and started to organize ourselves in civilizations. The political and technological developments that define our modern times have largely occurred during the last few hundred years, a period of time which is no more than a rounding error in the greater scale of evolution.

Over time, we have inhabited more or less all parts of the Earth and adopted highly different ways of living and adapted to the varying climates and living conditions. However, from a genetic perspective, these adaptations are marginal. Our basic design has not changed at all. People today are genetically in all material respects the same as those first humans 150,000 years ago. We are, in other words, designed for a stone-age lifestyle, which indeed is very different from the life most of us actually live today.

The current scientific knowledge on how our early relatives lived their lives is well described by the Swedish author Lasse Berg in two books: Gryning över Kalahari (“Dawn over the Kalahari”) and Skymningssång i Kalahari (“Dusk Song in the Kalahari”). Here follows an executive summary:

  • We lived in fairly small groups of 20-40 people. Studies suggest that the groups were characterized by more or less total equality amongst the group members.
  • Everything was shared within the group. If you one day missed the prey or did not find nice fruit, you could normally rely on someone else being more successful. We are, in fact, the only species that collects food and brings it back to the group. Even our closest relatives in nature (chimpanzees and gorillas) eat the food immediately when they find it; they would never even consider sharing a juicy fruit with the rest of the flock.
  • The working day was around two hours long. That is how long we spent hunting or gathering food every day, leaving a lot of time for other things, like making tools, but primarily just hanging out with the others, telling stories and laughing together.
  • Every now and then the groups met up with neighboring groups to party and generally socialize
  • Within the group, all individuals depended on each other. Cooperation was a necessity. Conflicts and disputes had to be settled amicably, as a lawyer would put it. There is no evidence of violence within the groups of early humans, or between groups for that matter. There is basically no archeological evidence of war until the time people formed permanent settlements and became civilized (what an irony!).
  • Different skills and talents were acknowledged. Some were, of course, stronger or faster than others and therefore more effective hunters. However, the best piece of the meat could rather be allocated to the person making the arrow used to kill the prey.

Sounds nice? An easy-going, relaxed lifestyle far from the common misconception of a barbaric time governed by the rule of the strongest.

I‘m not advocating a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle or a two hour work day (at least not right now). But, and this is my point, I think we still today should carefully consider the stone-age management consultants’ advice on organizational best practices. Sadly, his stone-age equivalents to power point slides have been lost, but here comes what I believe must have been the management consultant’s key messages:

  • Set up a low hierarchy organization based on cooperation and team work.
  • Make sure you have a culture of kindness and sharing – and lots of laughter.
  • Recognize the interdependence within the group – settle possible conflicts by talking rather than fighting and ensure transparency.
  • Ensure that individual skills and competences can flourish for the good of the whole group and avoid internal competition.
  • Acknowledge that there are other things in life than work that are important. Make sure there is room for a significant amount of general socializing and partying.

If those principles were put to use also in modern organizations, we would be more aligned with our overall natural tendencies as humans. I believe the result would be more successful, happier and less stressed people.

What makes me very glad is that the culture and organizational style at Fondia, my “tribe” of some nine months now, is pretty much in line with the stone-age management consultant’s principles. We have a flat, open and transparent organization. We share information and ideas. We laugh – a lot, sometimes to the annoyance of our office neighbors. All Fondians are encouraged both to express their views and opinions and to develop themselves as persons as well as professionals. We seek to avoid internal competition. Our work hour bank ensures a good work life balance.

I believe everyone’s deepest stone-age selves should feel well at home at Fondia. We are like a stone-age tribe, but with IT tools!