What is the Innovation that Led to Civilization?

by Tim Kastelle

What is the Innovation that Led to Civilization?There are some interesting answers to this question in Why the West Rules, For Now by Ian Morris. As part of his research, Morris has developed a Social Development Index, which he uses to track the progress of civilizations from 14000 BC to present. The index tracks improvements in areas such as energy capture (both as food and as fuel), organizational capability, technology development, and information sharing capacity.

Here is what the graph shows (taken from this .pdf that summarizes the research):

The first big jump happened between 2000 and 1000 BC, indicated by the very crude arrow that I’ve added. What was the innovation that caused that jump?

The invention of Bureaucracy.

Morris (and many other historians) argue that it was the invention of bureaucracy that actually triggered the development of agriculture, written communication, and other tools that are necessary for people to undertake complex tasks.

Bureaucracy is one of the most important innovations in human history – without it, we’d still be in caves. So why does it get such a bad rap whenever we talk about innovation? It’s nearly impossible to discuss innovation within organisations without hearing complaints about bureaucracy and bureaucrats.

The problem isn’t actually with bureaucracy. Bureaucracy makes systems, supports the development of routines, and gives us some constraints – which are actually essential to innovation (see here and here for examples). We need all of these things to innovate.

The problem with bureaucracy is when we follow rules simply for the sake of following rules. This is another form of path dependence, which leads to lock-in on sub-optimal systems. The problem is with bureaucratic systems that don’t support strategy – these stifle innovation.

Bureaucracy is actually a neutral term, like aerodynamics. To call a car “aerodynamically designed” is a nonsense – all cars have aerodynamics. It’s just that Teslas and Porsches have excellent aerodynamics, while minivans and SUVs have terrible aerodynamics.

In the same way we can have excellent bureaucracy, which supports innovation, and terrible bureaucracy, which obstructs innovation.

Bureaucracy isn’t actually an innovation obstacle, but bad bureaucracy is.

Image Credit: artory.blogspot.com
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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

No comments

  1. Great article. I’m guilty of often taking the easy road and blaming “bureaucracy” on stifling innovation, but you’re right in pointing out that its a neutral term.

    You didn’t come out and say it this bluntly, but it’s really people that are the hindrance to innovation – and when we blame bureaucracy, we should be blaming people in that bureaucracy that, for whatever reason (fear, laziness, self-interest) are using it as a tool to stifle innovation.

  2. I disagree. Unfortunately bureaucracy *is* the problem it’s thought to be. If we define it differently then of course not — but the tendency to make rules and follow them for the rules’ sake is in bureaucracy, a feature not a bug. This can be shown by individuals, families, and small groups — who can have routines and constraints while not becoming bureaucracies.

    Sclerotic behemoths aren’t *required* to have those things: they coincide but are not a necessary condition … and the systems themselves become a big problem — not just badly followed, but followed, period.

  3. Thanks for enlightenment about bureaucracy’s having a positive side. And you are perfectly correct that people follow rules just for the sake of following, even when the rules are inane. For example, we have a revolving door at work that is mechanically operated and slows to a crawl if it detects a person’s lagging behind. Employees will walk at a snail’s pace one after the other because that is the speed of the door. The door was meant to protect those with physical challenges. If they have speed and strength, they should just push the door already! It will go faster. (I will post this comment at my blog, http://www.squirrelb8.com.)

  4. I see the point. “Bureaucracy”, in the positive sense, is another word for “project management”, or a means of organizing labor. We all have seen how PM has risen in profile to be recognized as its own discipline.

    Stating it is the innovation that lead to civilization is a stretch. Or an attempt to connect two things that are not as coupled as you think. It is a natural consequence of what happened before it. Humans learned to control their environment (somewhat) through farming. They learned to domesticate (control) animals for their benefit. They next logical step was to learn to control and organize themselves as a cohesive group.

    Perhaps I am biased. This weekend I watched the National Geographic TV adaptation of the book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. Great documentary in 3 one-hour segments.

  5. Kul Bhushan Razdan

    Bureaucracy is an organized method/system to accomplish results. Shall we say systems approach. So during implementation, the bureaucrat should ask himself, whether any portion of bureaucracy is coming in the way of accomplishing results. If answer is yes, it is obvious what should give.

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