If History is Useful for Anything – 2: Organizations

I lost a month. It was around here just a minute ago; at least it seemed like a minute ago. I set it down on my desk and suddenly it was buried under a pile of Life. Apparently, this is the new normal.

I found where I had left off, and began the next planned installment in the blog. Unfortunately, it did not pass muster with my editor/proofreader (when you pay an editor/proofreader you can argue; when you are married to them, you can’t. It doesn’t end well).

So, this post is redesigned. The intent of this first page is to keep you engaged if not enthralled while reading to the end. What I composed earlier I decided might be of interest to a few, but should best be a bit more removed. What better place to hide it than in an Appendix that for all intents and purposes looks and behaves like a Page 2 in a long-form post. I will therefore close this first page appropriately and leave to those overly enthralled or suffering from insomnia to press onward.

The question aroused in my reading of Toynbee’s A Study of History is this: Are the arguments and conclusions he deduced for civilizations (very large groups of people) also workable for smaller groups? I believe the answer is yes, and so begin with organizations.


Organizations are typically established in order to respond to a need or a want, whether they are for-profit or non-profit. They are both influenced by their environment even as they seek to influence it. Using Toynbee’s terminology, we see most organizations move through a series of cycles, beginning with an ‘initial blossoming’ (spin-off or start-up), followed eventually by a ‘time of troubles’ (externally or internally generated), and an ‘interval’ followed by either regeneration (reorganization), divesture (spin-off), or entry into stagnation or possibly a slow death-spiral.

It is man’s “response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty” (the ‘time of troubles’) that determines the outcome for, in this case, an organization. The people most responsible for determining this response Toynbee calls a ‘dominant minority,’ which can be identified here as organizational management or leadership. Organizational ‘times of troubles’ can often be attributed to management who fail to recognize, or have become incapable of responding to, or choose not to respond to a challenge, whether internally or externally generated.

Toynbee observes, “Growth occurs when the response to a particular challenge is not only successful but provokes a further challenge which again meets with success.” If further success is not achieved, the organization runs the risk of ‘motor boating’ through a series of cycles of reorganization/times of troubles.

It is not difficult to see that Toynbee’s view of a society as a ‘system of relations’ is perfectly suited to an organization made up of individuals with a purpose to serve individuals. Taking our earlier definition of a business transaction into account, we can affirm that both the successful response to a challenge and the health of the organization are correlated more with +∑ outcomes (added value) than with 0∑ or -∑ outcomes.

Most organizational failures can be correlated with Toynbee’s reasons for societal breakdown. These include the weakening or failure of the leadership class (The Peter Principle?), Idolization of Self, or of Traditional Institutions and Techniques (‘But We’ve Always Done It That Way!’), and hubris arising from a challenge successfully overcome.

While it is clear that organizations continually experience cycles, whether they are externally and economically (market or industry) driven, or internally (management) driven, it is not clear that Toynbee’s interlinked historical three and a half cycles are necessarily or completely applicable to organizations.

One simple reason is that the long cycles (~400 years) of civilizations essentially preclude that any intentional short-term management actions by short-lived men (~70 years) will have an immediate or desired benefit or consequence. Outcomes eventually tend to be less than desirable, unpredictable, difficult to observe, or have long-lasting unintended consequences. And accountability is impossible.

On the other hand, individuals in organizations (‘leaders’ especially) are specifically charged with, actively involved in, and held accountable for controlling the outcomes and consequences for their organizations and the recognition of and responses to challenges.

On the whole, I tallied that organizations fulfilled 22 of 23 of the summary bullet points of Toynbee’s arguments (see the following Appendix, Page 2).  Encouraging.

If you are really enthralled, for further reading consider Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Apple’s journey through a number of Toynbee’s cycles (and phenomena) in a very compressed time span from 1980 through 2010. And it will be constructive to reread Jim Collin’s Good To Great again, but this time looking for Toynbee’s observations in Collin’s organizational turning points, the challenges that organizations identified, the practices that led to viable decisions and responses, and the hubris that led to other organizations’ subsequent failure.

If you are only moderately enthralled, follow the link below to Page 2, the Appendix and some of my more expanded thoughts.

Next: Networks


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 01: Business, A Definition, 02: Value Added, A Definition, 03: The Peter Principle, 04: Games People Play, 11: Growth, 12: Character, Career, Lessons from History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to If History is Useful for Anything – 2: Organizations

  1. Pingback: Family, Clans, Tribes, and other Social ‘Networks’ | Road Signs and Blind Spots

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