The Spartans were famed in the ancient world for their many unusual cultural conventions. Spartan society was completely focussed on the cultivation of military prowess, fortitude and discipline. For much of their early adulthood, men lived together in communal barracks rather than with their wives and families, learning how to perfect their command of military tactics, alongside logic and philosophy, and a uniquely 'laconic' style of personal expression. In most respects Spartan life was pretty brutal and unenviable, but perhaps uniquely in the classical world, Spartan women received near equal political status to men, could inherit property, and got a decent education. And when it came to dress code both men and women preferred to go commando, or flash the flesh, much to the consternation of the more prudish Athenians, who thought them weird and scary in pretty much every respect.
But the Athenians, and the other Classical Greek City states were themselves extreme outliers and oddities in the context of the ancient Mediterranean, dominated as it was by monarchies and dynastic despots. The experiments in social organisation and political economy that characterised that period laid the foundations for much of our contemporary civilisation, while the dynasties crumbled into the sand and were forgotten. And much of this glorious flourishing of human creativity was based on (for the time) radical distribution of power, autonomy and knowledge.
We still need organisational experimentation and diversity to enable more powerful ways of working to emerge. But the pressures and conventions of our economy are forcing us to conform to cookie-cutter models of structuring and sustaining organisations, most of which are closed and dynastic, rather than open and democratic.
Andy Law, the founder of the famously 'disruptive' St. Luke's advertising agency said: "the market pushes back on innovation. It tries to normalise businesses. Accounting laws force companies into rigid structures (partnerships, limited liability partnerships, limited companies etc). That is the root cause of why every company ends up being the same."
Some buck the trend.
Ricardo Semler said of Semco, his famous organisational experiment "Our 'architecture' is really the sum of all the conventional business practices we avoid".
I'll blog more about what we can learn from these more recent outliers, who still get talked about in mythic terms many years after their flame grew dim - just as the Spartans did.
But for now, we need to keep asking why there are so few wonders of the working world and what consequences this has for our economy and society.