Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Evolve me back to the Serengeti

Human anthropology has always been of interest to me. As long as I could remember, I have spent a large portion of my reading time focused on human evolution and the origins of sociological structures. This weekend I had an extraordinary opportunity to hike with the Phoenix Park Rangers and a renowned archeologist to the top of Shaw Butte Mountain to examine Indian ruins. Here was an opportunity to look back into history – those civilizations that shaped the American Southwest.

The hike was extremely difficult with steep slopes and often very unstable footings. However, at the top of the mountain history gave up her story. What to the untrained eye was nothing more than a pile of rocks came to life through the voice of the guides. It seems that the Shaw Butte Mountains were first discovered in the early 1930’s. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the archeologists determined that the high degree of pilferage of the artifacts warranted government involvement to secure the area. Since then, the entire area has been closed to the public and is monitored by local law enforcement.

For anyone who has visited Arizona in the summer, they would be hard pressed to believe that Phoenix was not under the dominion of Hades. The 120F temperatures become worse with the lack of shade and the presence of some of the worst life forms, all seeking a means for survival. Yet, native Indians called the Hopi inhabited the entire area. These tribes originated from the base of the Grand Canyon and migrated to the Sonoran Desert and beyond; some of the harshest environments in the Southwest.

During their stay in this harsh land, some 2000+ years ago, they learned to become one with nature. These tribes of 75 or so people knew that survival meant clearly defined roles within the tribe. They were hunters, gatherers, sentry, homemakers, builders, planners and astronomers. By means of carefully studied celestial behaviors, these Indians were able to determine what time of the year it was and therefore shape how they would survive. The key to survival was everyone had a role. Each person’s unique skill was required for the continuance of the tribe!

As history unfolded, the survival of the ancient peoples was a result of them forming groups and working toward the survival of the tribal unit. In today’s society, the bonds of teamwork are less important for human survival. We no longer need to take up our sentry post for protection, while our comrade stalks dinner. For us, meals are often a phone call away – and it is delivered! However, through each of the services we need for our survival there is some degree of teamwork. There are people at the public utilities commission that ensure our basic needs are met, and there is a huge infrastructure that ensures our food supply.

With that, there are teams of people all working, somewhat together, that ensure our survival. The basic difference between the Hopi of centuries ago and us today, is our survival is based on our contribution to the economic engine, which recognizes our efforts with a medium of exchange. The sad part of it is the glue that bound our ancestors together is almost non-existent today. This is grossly present in the poor work ethic of today’s workforce. Today, we are in the ‘me’ era, while our ancestors were in the ‘us’ era.

Amazingly enough a tremendous amount has been written on these eras, as it relates to human development. Essentially there are three phases of human development: dependency, independency and interdependence. The dependency era is the ‘I need you’ era. This is the time from infancy to adolescence. The independency era, is the ‘me’ era. It is all about me and I can take care of me. The highest level, is the interdependency era, the ‘us’ era.

In moving off the Serengeti, humans have devolved from interdependency to dependency. I sense we are in a position stuck somewhere between the two. It is in the allusive position that, I feel, impedes us from accomplishing great things. We no longer focus only on what we do best for the betterment of the team, we put 70% focus on our skill and 30% on trying to tell someone how best to do what he or she have to. This behavior is most prevalent in the professional services, and specifically in the practice of accountancy and law.

In today’s firms, partners behave as if they are running their ‘own’ practice; they are not acting as part of a much grander entity – ‘the tribe’. It is all about ‘me’. They manage their own client relationships, bill and for the most part are responsible for collections of the amounts. They do all of this under the guise of client ‘relationships’. They are essentially focusing 70% of their talent on what betters the organization and 30% on things they know nothing about – like technology, billing, and collections. Just recently I had a meeting with a large firm Managing Partner, the CFO and the Billing and Collections Manager. I came to realize that half of the partners in the firm act as if they are sole proprietors! The firm had a true ‘eat what you kill’ mentality. You work it, you bill it, you collect it… it is yours. I thought, "What would Darwin make of this devolution?"

However, this isn’t unlike many firms throughout North America. Today’s firms are so full of ego that money is simply flying out of the window! Consider just how much billable time is wasted on ‘billing’ and ‘collections’. And the humorous part is lawyers know nothing about collections! All of this is done because firms are stuck in the ‘me’ era and they feel they can do it all. The corporate world has gotten out of this mode, simply through market pressures. However, today’s legal firms are stuck in the ‘me’ mode. The only excuse they can fathom up is…“our profession is about ‘relationships’”.

Professional services are built and maintained on relationships, as is every business. However, the reclusive ego-driven nature of law and accountancy represents the blinders by which these organizations are stuck in the ‘me’ era. It is amazing how much more these professions would achieve if each partner focused on what they did best, the practice of the profession. The medical and dental fields have recognized that they can achieve more through interdependency. The practitioners maintain relationships with their clients, at the same time focusing on their expertise. All I can say is that my dentist has never called me about payment on my crowns, nor has my surgeon for fixing what was wrong – now that is a higher form of business! Interdependency!

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