What's Old is New: Innovation Lessons from 1177 B.C.

by Scott Bowden

What's Old is New: Innovation Lessons from 1177 B.C. - Innovation ExcellenceThe Late Bronze Age was a period of human flourishing that ended rather abruptly in 1177 B.C.  In his book 1177 B.C. – The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric Cline of George Washington University explores various theories that seek to explain why numerous societies in the Mediterranean region, with complex international trade patterns and sophisticated pathways for the exchange of ideas, disappeared in a relatively short period of time.  This destruction culminated in the year 1177 B.C., when the residents of this region succumbed to earthquakes, invasions, famine, and other calamitous events.  Although Cline’s archaeological exploration of this era makes for fascinating reading in and of itself, of greater relevance for the modern innovation practitioner are several anecdotes from Cline’s narrative of the ancient world.

Thinking about these stories can provide innovators with clever approaches to overcoming the challenges they face today in trying to come up with new and interesting solutions to the process and technology problems.

What’s Old is New

George Santayana’s famous dictum that those who do not study history are destined to repeat it is often cited in a negative context in that people who fail to adhere to the lessons of past mistakes are likely to make the same mistakes again. Yet as Cline observes, this concept can work with a slight twist to the extent that those who study history can sometimes benefit from repeating it. Cline relays the story of the Egyptian Pharoah Thutmose III who, in 1479 B.C., marched with his army northwards from Egypt to attack the fortified city of Megiddo in what is now Israel. Thutmose III stopped at the city of Yehem (just south of his target) and initiated a war council among his generals to determine the various ways to attack Megiddo. The most obvious paths were a northern or southern route, which consisted of wider valleys that were less subject to ambush. The third option, via the Wadi Ara, was a narrow pass that was highly vulnerable to attack but that led directly to Megiddo. Thutmose III chose the narrow pass, thinking that his enemy would never expect him to make such a foolish assault, and was rewarded with an undefended approach into the city and victory in the battle.

The success of the Egyptian ruler is not remarkable in and of itself.  After all, history is replete with examples of military leaders who took the non-obvious path in attacking a foe.  What is fascinating about Megiddo is that 3,400 years later, in 1918, the British General Edmund Allenby made the exact same decision in an assault he engineered against German and Turkish forces holding Megiddo as part of the Middle Eastern theatre of operations in World War I. Like Thutmose III, Allenby was also successful in his assault, taking hundreds of prisoners with minimal losses on his side. Allenby credited his success to the fact that he had read a translation of Thutmose III’s account of the assault in 1479 B.C. and replicated the strategy that worked thousands of years earlier.

For the innovation practitioner, there are several themes worth exploring related to the story of the two battles of Megiddo.

The first theme is the value of the non-obvious solution.  Although Thutmose III and Allenby had dramatically different military capabilities at their disposal, in the end their actions were defined by the timeless geography of the location. They faced the challenge of how to get a large group of troops from one spot to another and position them best to assault a well-fortified citadel. For an innovator, reducing a problem to its most basic elements can help drive valuable ideas to solve problems. A second theme is that the least obvious choice may sometimes be the best choice. The path taken by these military leaders was the most prone to ambush and therefore the least obvious for an attacker to take, but it yielded the best results. For the innovator, this thought process could be applied when assessing a set of solutions to a problem. The least obvious solution may be the one that is dismissed immediately, just as we can imagine that Thutmose III’s war council probably told him that the central route was definitely the worst path to take for the assault.

A final lesson is the importance of understanding history, not matter how seemingly distant a previous innovation may be. Just as Allenby looked back across thousands of years of history to find a solution to his problem in 1918, so, too, should an innovation practitioner not limit himself or herself to analysis of very recent experiences concerning an innovative concept. In today’s fast-moving social media world of instant feedback and commentary, there may be value in stepping back from this fray and looking into history and the larger human experience to identify innovations.

The transformative iPhone, after all, was at its most basic essence a communications device to allow human 1 to communicate with human 2, though the primary means of communications may have evolved through different technologies (voice, text, social media).

Front Office/Back Office

Another anecdote from Cline’s study comes from a section of the book where Cline is examining the complex pathways of international trade and commerce between the ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean region. As an example of how primitive societies engage in complex exchanges that may not be apparent upon peripheral examination of the process is the gift exchange process of the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific.  Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, working in the 1920s, performed extensive research on the Kula Ring of exchanges in which tribal chiefs from different islands would meet and ceremonially trade shell armbands and necklaces with complex mechanisms for deriving the value of each item based on the history of the trinket.

Yet while the chiefs engaged in their elaborate ceremonies trading these shell items, the crew members from their canoes would busily trade with locals on the beach for food, water, and other necessities. The real reason for the visits from one island to another was for trade in these critical items to sustain life, but on the surface it might appear to the casual observer that the trinket exchange was more important.

For the innovator, the lesson from the Trobriand Islander exchange is to not be distracted by the elaborate, ostentatious aspects of a technology or process at the expense of the real underpinnings of the technology or process that better define the activity. Had the researcher Malinowski focused all of his efforts on deciphering the complicated shell patterns of the chiefs, he might have missed the more important commerce taking place on the beach between the crew members and the locals.

Bright, Shiny Objects

Just as visitors to the British Museum wonder why the Elgin Marbles from the Greek Parthenon are on display in London, so, too, might visitors to Berlin’s Neues Museum wonder why perhaps the most famous statue from Egyptian antiquity, the bust of Queen Nefertiti, is on display in the German capital. The answer, as relayed in Cline’s writings, lies in a clever, though deceptive, tactic used by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt who was leading the excavations at the Egyptian site of Amarna in 1912. Borchardt had an agreement with the Egyptian government to split equally any of the items he discovered in his work at the site, with Egypt given the first choice on any item.  When he found the bust of Nefertiti, he knew that this item would never be allowed to leave the country so he made sure not to clean off the dirt on the bust and placed it at the end of a long line of recovered artifacts. The Egyptians, as expected, ignored the dust-covered object and did not claim it for themselves. The Germans promptly transported it to Berlin and once it was cleaned up and placed on display in 1924, the Egyptian government began a futile effort to return it to Egypt that continues to this day.

The lesson in this story for the innovator is that when one is assessing a long list of items as potential innovation projects or ideas, one should avoid being drawn only to those projects or ideas that appear to be the most exciting, prominent, or shiny. Some projects that appear on the surface to be less exciting may, in fact, hold the greatest value for the innovator.

Right Beneath One’s Feet

One of the most famous Egyptian tomb discoveries in history occurred in 1922 when the English archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.  Although gravediggers had robbed the tomb of its most magnificent treasures, the tomb was nonetheless a spectacular find.  What is interesting about the discovery of the tomb was the way in which Carter found it. Carter had been hired by the British Earl of Carnarvon to search for the tomb but had been unsuccessful in his excavations for six straight seasons. Carter pleaded with the Earl to allow him one more season of digging, and when the Earl agreed to fund the final endeavor, Carter had a realization about his excavation strategy that resulted in the great discovery.

In each of the six prior seasons, Carter placed his headquarters camp in exactly the same spot. On the seventh try, he decided that he would put his headquarters camp in a new location and conduct his digging on the spot where his camp had been situated all those previous years. After only three days of digging, his crew found steps that lead down to the tomb. Apparently the tomb had been covered by layers and layers of dirt that was used in the building of a nearby tomb and thus its location was not readily apparent, particularly when an entire headquarters camp was situated on top of it.

For the innovator, the story of Carter’s discovery shows the importance of self-awareness in how one approaches innovation.  If the practitioner follows the same process every time in searching for a new discovery, that person may be overlooking a simple solution that is not apparent because of the repetitive nature of the innovation discovery process. Putting his headquarters in the same spot each year was probably easier than thinking about a new location and addressing any challenges associated with moving his camp, but it was not a recipe for success. Changing methods and approaches is important for the innovation process.  An innovator who has a recurring innovation meeting or workshop may want to change up the content, approach, location, or cadence to make sure he or she is not missing something simple beneath his or her feet.

Archaeoseismology

Cline’s analysis of the fate that befell several cities in 1177 B.C. includes data gathered by researchers known as archaeoseismologists. As one might guess, these scientists combined the skills of archaeology (studying ancient civilizations through excavation) with the expertise of seismology (understanding how the planet’s plates move causing earthquakes) to develop observations about past civilizations. One example of this is the observation by Cline that Greece suffered from a series of earthquakes from 1225 B.C. to 1175 B.C.  Archaeoseismologists refer to this multi-year pattern of repeated quakes as an earthquake storm where a fault line unzips over time, releasing pressure each time and devastating the land above the fault.

Archaeoseismology provides the innovator with an example of how combining old and new thinking can yield interesting insights into solving a puzzle.  With the archaeologist digging carefully through the debris of a past civilization and the seismologist using modern techniques to analyze the plate tectonics of an area, the net result is a deeper understanding of what happened to the societies living in a certain location.  An innovator might want to combine old and new thinking when trying to solve a technical puzzle or when trying to develop a new innovation.

Diversified Portfolio

A final concept from Cline’s work that warrants investigation is the notion of systems collapse as it relates to the disappearance of so many civilizations at the same time around 1177 B.C.  Cline cites the work of the Italian scholar Mario Liverani who attributes the disasters of 1177 B.C. to the fact that so many of these societies had concentrated their power in the ruler’s palace. This concentration of power in the ruler’s palace was a significant attribute of the Late Bronze Age.  Because so many aspects of society were dependent on and flowed through the palace, a physical destruction of this part of the society could have systemic impacts and ripple through the entire civilization.  Cline notes that the situation faced by these societies at the end of the Late Bronze Age bears a resemblance to the modern concept of a diversified portfolio.

These societies concentrated their power in the palace and centralized their operations, which proved to lack resilience when faced with an invasion or natural disaster.  For the innovator, the diversified portfolio is a staple of survival, as he or she should always have a diverse set of bets in the innovation space so that if one approach or set of approaches proves to be unsuccessful, he or she has several other options to pursue.

Source:

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C. – The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

image credit: aquilaaquilonis.livejournal.com


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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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