History is filled with examples of remarkable individuals or groups, who forge fantastic empires and systems that drastically change how people live and think. Yet, a few short years or decades after they are gone, what they built shudders into a slow collapse or sometimes, even a sudden fall.
One of my favorite stories is the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. In one version of the tale, Alexander marched into the ancient province of Phrygia where there was an ox cart tied to a post with an intricate knot. The knot was famous for being so tangled that no one could untangle it and there was in fact, a prophecy that anyone who could untangle the knot would go on to rule all of Asia.
Alexander tried for a while to undo the knot in the usual way, without success. And then he stepped back, drew his sword and cut the knot in half with a single blow. Shortly after, he went on to conquer Egypt and large parts of Asia, greatly expanding the Macedonian Empire started by his father, King Philip II.
He did all this before he died at age 32. To the older people reading this, think back a bit and look at what you were doing at age 32, then you would probably understand why he is called “the Great.”
The Macedonian empire lasted around 150 years, reaching its height during Alexander’s reign and slowly declining thereafter due to internal strife and struggle.
Mention “Macedonia”to people today and probably 9 out of 10 will look back at you with blank stares. Where now is the empire that this young conqueror built?
The story shows a pattern often repeated until today in the business world. Consider the story of Nokia. It is hard to imagine that less than 20 years ago, Nokia meant “cellphone” just as much as “Google”means search on the internet.
Nokia was then the leading cellphone maker in the world, besting its competitors by a large margin. It offered different models catering to every price range. Its iconic ringtone was and is still familiar to those today in their late thirties and above.
Mention Nokia today to a teenager and he’ll probably look at it as just one of the minor players in the cellphone market, with probably less brand recognition than Apple or Samsung.
This is the nature of the beast. It is the struggle between innovation and stability, between creativity and conformity. Innovators cut through a gordian knot of problems with a brilliant solution, then bureaucrats take over and try to implement systems to duplicate, scale up and sustain the success, inevitably creating another gordian knot that may end up being more tangled than the first.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.