The Medieval Future of Management
1/ Today I want to talk about an idea I’ve been developing, which is that the future of the business world, post-Covid, and post software eating the world, looks surprisingly like the High Middle Ages, between about 1000 to 1250 AD, rather than like any more recent historical era. Which of course leads to the question, how do you operate in this world?
2/ I also want to talk a little bit about the first ten decade of my life as an independent consultant, what I’m looking forward to in the next decade, and in that vein, I want to talk about a new initiative I helped start last month, called the Yak Collective.
3/ Next year, in February, I will have completed 10 years as an independent consultant, 10 years since my first client in 2011. I’ve probably had like 50-60 clients since then. So at a personal level, I was already in a mood to pivot to a different mode coming out of my 9-month fellowship with the Berggruen Institute, which gave me a chance to cut back on the consulting work, take a step back, and think about my journey so far, and where I want to go to from here.
4/ This planned pivot has coincided with Covid19, which has radically accelerated a trend that has been a big part of my career — software eating the world. Almost all the consulting I’ve done is, in one way or another, about software eating the world. Software eating the world is going through an inflection point I thought wouldn’t arrive till 2030. The pandemic has accelerated the schedule by 10 years.
5/ Previously, it was the margin to the industrial center, now the industrial world is the margin and the software world is the center. I don’t know about you, but I’m betting that this recovery will lead us to a world with software at the center sort of permanently, dominating not just the economy, but every aspect of our adapted way of life.
6/ But… there’s something bigger going on here. I’ve been reading a lot of history, and I’ve concluded that it isn’t just the 20 year old software-eating-the-world trend that is accelerating and going through an inflection point. There are several other much longer cycles that are going through similar inflection points. We are experiencing a sort of resonance peak in several cycles which happen to coincide in phase right now.
7/ For example, a 100 year culture of industrial synchronized clock-based time is shifting to post-industrial multi-temporality, based on subjective event-stream-based time. This is what I’ve been researching for the last year, and writing a book about, called the Clockless Clock, which I am serializing on this newsletter..
8/ Then there is a 400-year old cycle of Westphalian nation states that seems to be swinging towards some sort of city-state and regional coalitional world, thanks to how and where the battle against Covid19 is actually being fought.
9/ And going still further back, to before the Black Death, which I am reading about in a great book called A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, I think an 800-year-old cycle of centralization is reversing and giving way to a kind of decentralized, horizontally organized world last seen in the High Middle Ages, when the feudal nobility was more powerful than the monarchy, the Church in Europe had unquestioned authority, and imperial states were weak.
10/ Now if you’ve studied your history, you probably know that the Black Death, along with other factors like the rise of firearms, drove the world towards Great Powers and centralization, and weakened the feudal, manorial economy of barons and knights. I think Covid19 will drive us the other way, towards local and regional powers and decentralization. This is not an original thought. A lot of people have been saying that.
11/ The part that interests me is the implications of this huge multi-cycle inflection point for organizations and management. Assumptions shifting now are older than the oldest modern businesses. They are older than even mercantilism, which was based on the Age of Sail, and emerged in the 15th century, after the Black Death had destroyed the manorial economy.
12/ If you want to think about organizations and management in the next decade, you have to go back far, really far, to before there were modern public or private sectors, or chartered corporations. To a time when the economy meant a manorial economy, and globalization meant Templar knights going on crusades. To a time when honor-based politics was on top and economics was strongly subservient to it.
13/ Of course, the structural roles are played by different elements, and you can’t get too literal about this. You have a world awash in public debt, and likely, a wave of nationalization of large parts of the global business world. Instead of the church, you have the global liberal order.
14/ But the point of the loose historical analogy is that you can no longer rely on assumptions about business and corporations based on the last 50, 100, or even 400 years. The internet has been fundamentally undermining assumptions that were laid down as far back as 1000 AD. And Covid19 is accelerating the process of collapsing things built on those assumptions
15/ If you want to rethink the nature of organizations, business, and the economy today, you have to rethink ideas going back as far back as the 13th century from first principles. This is something I’m doing in one of my other projects, the Great Weirding, but that’s at the level of essay writing. This is a kind of thinking I want to bring into my consulting work as well.
16/ So to bring it back down to that, I’ve learned a lot in the last decades, and I think I’ve done more good than harm. There are even times I’ve felt like I added more value to a client in an hour than an entire McKinsey team in a year. This is not me bragging about my personal abilities, but a comment on just how much fresh intelligence there is to be mined from internet-first perspective, from a software-eating-the-world lens.
17/ For example, just this morning, I was leading a study group on online community governance, and we were reading a section of The Tao of the IETF, which is a seminal document in internet governance, and it suddenly struck me that governing and managing online communities, which is something I’ve been doing for over 20 years now, is actually a much harder problem than governing organizations.
18/ And much of the reason I am able to add a weirdly leveraged kind of value as an independent consultant is due to the fact that my primary home is on the internet. Even my main consulting methodology, which I call “sparring” is a skill I think I’ve honed more through 20 years of online discussions and flame wars, than through traditional business meetings.
19/ So here’s a weird way of looking at it: because the internet was something of a blank canvas in the 80s, and because the people creating its culture were not typical organization man types, they basically made up a playbook that seemed to work as they went along. And as it happens, a lot of the methods they discovered through trial and error look more like the culture of the 1300s than classic management texts from the 1970s.
20/ It’s not that Peter Drucker or Michael Porter are wrong; they were just working within organizational frameworks and mental models that are much younger, between 20 to 200 years old. And as it turns out, those frameworks and mental models are not as robust as we like to think. In fact, they’re pretty fragile, and are collapsing around us as we speak.
21/ I’m not the only one making this argument. There was a very interesting book by Matthew Fraser, that came out in 2008. It was called Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom, and it argued exactly what I am arguing — that in a world where Facebook shapes reality, you can learn more from the history of Templar knights than you can from the biography of Jack Welch.
22/ There are toxic aspects of this of course. I’ve written elsewhere about the Internet of Beefs, which is about the toxic world of culture wars. If you squint a bit, it resembles the culture of jousting and tournaments in the middle ages. But other aspects are much more positive. Good internet communities seem to have some of the features of good manorial economies for example. They have a whole-life sort of quality to them, instead of an artificial separation of work and life.
23/ Which brings me to the something I want to put the spotlight on. As many of you know, I write another newsletter called the Art of Gig, which is about independent consulting, contractors, and the gig economy. About a month ago, we spun up a sort of open-source initiative with the idea of discovering more internet-native ways of developing and delivering consulting services.
24/ The group, which we call the Yak Collective, just launched publicly last week, and released its first report, called Don’t Waste the Reboot. It’s a collection of ideas about how organizations can emerge from Covid19 in a way that makes the next normal better than the last one. We’re going to be producing a lot more like that in the coming months, and you can keep up by following our work on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
25/ But what I want to highlight is not the content so much as the method by which we are trying to generate it. With the Yak Collective, we are trying to practice what I am preaching here, which is to take a really long, historical view of organizations and management going back to the 13th century, combining that with what we’ve learned from 30 years of online, internet culture, and working in new ways.
26/ If you want to support us, you can do a couple of things. First, take a look at our first report, and get in touch with me or one of the other contributors if you think your organization can use some of the kinds of fresh thinking we think we can do that traditional sources of consulting cannot. Second, you can join us live as we do a lot of our thinking. The Discord community where we do our stuff is open to everybody, and you can just join it and hang out with us. Most of our meetings are also open.
27/ And finally, to bring it back to a personal note, one reason I’m taking this on is of course, because I think people who are new to the indie economy could use some resources and support like this, and it’s a way for me to make my own second decade as an indie different from the first. Among other things, I want to try and distill some of the management and business knowledge I think I’ve learned in the last decade into teaching and writing output that others can use, and also by doing that, maybe level up myself to different challenges myself.
28/ As one piece of that, next week, I’ll be conducting my first workshop on my conversational sparring model of consulting for a few others in the Yak Collective interested in learning it. I am hoping to do more such things, and make it a new part of my consulting life. But in the meantime, of course, I have to continue my own consulting practice.