What the Romans can teach us about organisational culture

One of my favourite books on corporate culture is Edgar Schein’s Organisational Culture and Leadership.

Simplistic definitions of culture, such as ‘the way we do things around here’ or even ‘shared values’, are not especially useful. Schein’s understanding of culture as a set of shared assumptions and meanings is far more illuminating. It is these assumptions that underpin all the visible things, like espoused values and behaviours.

As he explains, cultural assumptions are unconscious, shared between members of the group and are usually based on what has worked well in the past. That is why they are so difficult to change.

This story from the days of the Roman Republic illustrates the point well.

Roman military tactics were revolutionary in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Roman legionary was armed with a huge shield and a two-foot long sword. These are not the sort of weapons you would choose for one-to-one combat but, used en masse, they were deadly. The Romans would lock their shields together in a seemingly unbreakable wall. They would then advance, using the shield wall to push their enemies’ spears and swords aside. Then, when they were right up close, they would draw their short swords and start stabbing their opponents. The Roman army has been likened to a buzz-saw with thousands of small teeth, slicing its way through the enemy lines.

These tactics were dependent on strict military discipline. Maintaining the shield wall was crucial to the Romans’ success. If the formation broke, the enemy would break through and, armed only with two-foot swords, the legionaries would be vulnerable. From commanders to foot soldiers, Roman legionaries understood that, whatever else, the shield formations had to hold.

These tactics worked well for the Romans until they came up against their most formidable opponent, Hannibal. Not only was he a brilliant general but he had a new weapon; war elephants. Roman shield walls could repel infantry and even cavalry but, when faced with elephants, they collapsed. The psychological impact of seeing their trusted shield formations breached was devastating for the Romans.

Hannibal followed the Romans around Italy for years, attacking and destroying army after army. The old tried and tested tactics of the Romans were not working but no-one seemed to know what to do. One by one, Roman generals were either killed or sacked by the Roman senate. This went on until a newly promoted general, Scipio, introduced a series of radical changes to the Roman army. Among these was something previously unthinkable. He decided to break the shield wall.

This went against everything he and his contemporaries had been taught but Scipio realised that, by separating the wall and letting the elephants pass through, his troops could then attack them from the sides where they were most vulnerable. If they could do it quickly enough, they could still hold their line against the Carthaginian infantry following the elephants’ charge.

This was not a quick and easy innovation. Changing assumptions never is, especially when they are that deep rooted. It took months of training for Scipio’s army to perfect the manoeuvre to a point where they could execute it with confidence on the battlefield.

This they did to devastating effect at the battle of  Zama. Scipio’s new tactics worked, Hannibal was defeated and the myth of his invincibility was broken.  Eventually, Rome won the war and Carthage was destroyed.

But it so nearly went the other way. For many years, the smart money would have been on Hannibal. The great Mediterranean empire of the classical age might well have been ruled from Carthage rather than Rome. But because someone was brave enough to question deeply held articles of faith, the Roman empire survived.

All too often in organisations, when people talk about culture change or paradigm shifts or even innovation, what they really mean is making changes according to existing assumptions. That’s fine in most circumstances. You can make some quite radical changes without challenging those assumptions. Sometimes making the shield wall higher or deeper, or even using different shaped shields, will be enough. But, as Scipio discovered, there also times when you need to do something totally different, something which challenges all received wisdom and which is therefore deeply disturbing for those who have to make it work.

When things get tough, organisations tend to become more conservative. Like the Romans, they stick to tried and tested tactics just at the point when doing something different might be the only way to survive.

So, what is the shield wall in your company? What is the belief you have always held or the foolproof strategy that has always worked but which may eventually be your undoing? Is there anyone like Scipio in your organisation who will think the unthinkable – then do it?

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2 Responses to What the Romans can teach us about organisational culture

  1. H says:

    Certainly, the Romans changed tactics to cope with Hannibal. But Hannibal’s key strength was probably not his elephants, all of which had died by the time of his greatest victory at Cannae. What swung things for him there were the superiority of his cavalry, allowing him to envelop the Romans from the flanks, and the discipline of his infantry, which meant they could retreat while still fighting and without breaking, despite being outnumbered. The Roman tactics were unimaginative, relying on sheer weight of numbers on a narrow front, depriving themselves of all ability to manoeuvre; whilst Roman cavalry was never of outstanding quality. By the time of Zama, the Carthaginians had lost many of their best troops and the replenishment of the elephant arm did little to redress the balance; by contrast, the Romans had become far more professional and adopted, as you point out, a daring method of dealing with the elephant charge and turning it to their advantage.

  2. Rick says:

    H – yes, Scipio’s military reforms went much further than just how to deal with elephants and Hannibal’s success was not only due to his elephants.

    But Scipio was one of those rare people who challenged the status quo and the tactic against the elephants was symbolic. Symbolism is improtant when you ar making any change.

    Also, didn’t want to put too much detail in here as it would just ruin the story! 😉

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