Survive and Thrive in an Ever-changing and Hostile Environment
from David Hurst’s Crisis and Renewal
We have a challenge today of adapting effectively to a changing and often hostile environment while maintaining some sense of coherence and purpose. The metaphor or model of the nomadic hunting band, as the root of most cultures, offers insights on how we can organize to survive and thrive in a changing and often threatening context.
In Crisis and Renewal, David Hurst presents a very powerful ‘story’ of the nomadic Bushmen of the Kalahari. The cultural transformation of the Bushmen from hunters to herders seems to parallel the evolution of entrepreneurial businesses into bureaucracies. David argues that all organizations must return in some way to the ‘the original cradle of learning’ – the hunter band, if they are to renew themselves.
The story of the Bushmen is of interest because their hunting-gathering culture was successful in a very hostile environment. The nomadic hunting band was ‘dynamically stable,’ capable of adapting quickly without losing its coherence. The nomadic hunting band was a ‘learning organization’ in its capacity to cope with a variety of changing circumstances.
In the hunting band we can ‘see’ the social dynamics that can hold an organization together without hierarchy, bureaucracy, or control.
The Bushmen’s society was comprised of loose coalitions of open, assertively egalitarian bands.Membership in the hunting bands was defined by family, kinship, and friendship, and there was a continual flow in the membership of any band. Band membership was not permanent.
Band territories overlapped and the areas were not defended as the resources were widely dispersed, limited, and seasonal.
The bands were nomadic, by virtue of their changing and seasonal environment. They were highly mobile with few if any possessions.
Families had a choice of whom to travel with, and were able to switch easily to more ‘attractive’ or successful bands.
The Bushmen ‘culture’ had an absence of hierarchy, and a disdain for the desire for wealth or power. The “flex and flow in the bands was subversive to authority, maintained individual autonomy, and minimized the build up of aggression in the society.” The individual and flexible social and cultural dynamics appeared to ensure the capability to adapt quickly.
“It was the autonomy of the small groups composed of multi-skilled individuals that allowed the society to spread itself out in its search for the dispersed resources.” The flexibility and mobility of the social hunting groups allowed the Bushmen to cover a large geographical area and to capitalize on success wherever it was found.
The ease of association and fluidity of the membership of the bands allowed the dispersed families to re-associate easily within the larger community or society.
“The flexible band system was complimented by values that stressed the ethic of sharing, both of meat and of possessions.” Mores of gift giving, sharing of success, and free exchange ensured the survival of the whole. “At any given point in time, everyone within the society owed someone else a favour.”
The Bushmen’s temporary camps consisted of grass huts arranged in a tight circle with all entrances facing toward the centre of the circle. The ‘open door’ structure encouraged openness and interaction, and everyone knew everyone else’s business. The physical living arrangements facilitated an intimacy and sense of belonging among the members of the community.
The central ‘communication mechanism’ was the dialogue around the campfires at night. The clustering and intense conversations and recanting maintained community bonds, promoted consensus, and planned the next excursions.
“Although events and plans were discussed and developed at a conscious level (around the campfires), these activities took place against a vast, mythological backdrop that brought meaning to the Bushmen’s daily routines.” Without a concept of the future other than the cycle of the seasons, the Bushmen “enacted in story, song, and dance the rituals that reminded them of the origins of their universe and their place within it.” Their mythology was rich in the details of every element of the desert and their relationship with them – and nothing was trivial or unimportant; everything played an important role in the overall system. “In consequence, they were acutely sensitive to everything that happened in the context in which they lived their lives and were capable of responding rapidly to unanticipated events.”
Their mythology – a sense of shared vision or purpose – allowed the Bushmen to make sense of and navigate what to outsiders looked like a dangerous and unpredictable environment.
The physical arrangements facilitated the social processes; the “… intense social interaction and deep dialogue allowed members of the community to identify and articulate issues as they arose, usually resolving them well before they became ‘problems’ requiring decisions.”
“The most prominent feature of the Bushmen’s hunting culture is … its apparent natural balance – a woven blend of stable social structures and flexible processes that allowed them to follow and capitalize upon the natural rhythms of their desert home.” “… one might say that the hunting Bushmen were not so much in the environment as they were of the environment.
The nomadic hunting organizations were successful, perhaps not in terms of developing technology or creating wealth, but in surviving, preserving their vision and values for an immense period of time in environments that were very limited in resources, hostile, and ever changing. Dynamically stable, flexible, mobile, fluid, sensitive, open, intense, effective – perhaps a much more relevant metaphor or model for today’s organizations that we might first believe.
Crisis and Renewal, Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change, by David K. Hurst, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1995.