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  • Jon Smart

(2) How We Got Here

This is the second blog post in the Organising for Outcomes series. In the previous post we looked at some of the common challenges to realising value when not optimising for outcomes, when using ways of working which have evolved in previous work contexts (repetitive and knowable) and are still being applied to today’s very different context (increasingly unique and unknowable).

It is helpful to understand where we have come from, to understand why we work the way we do, the context it has evolved in and hence what and why we might want to change today.

In this post we look at:

  • How we have evolved in small multidisciplinary teams over two million years

  • The beginnings of division of labour with the introduction of complex societies

  • Origins of the word tribe in Rome, three thousand years ago

  • The rise of division of labour with the probably the first business district in the world

  • Growth of guilds, with craftspeople, mentoring and quality standards

  • The fall of guilds and the rise of industrialisation

  • Implications for today's ways of working

We humans (homo sapiens and our predecessor homo erectus) have evolved over the past 2 million years in small multidisciplinary teams and teams of teams. We have lived, hunted, gathered and fished together in groups that consisted of several families, typically 30 to 50 people.

Two million years of experience

We humans (homo sapiens and our predecessor homo erectus) have evolved over the past 2 million years in small multidisciplinary teams and teams of teams. We have lived, hunted, gathered and fished together in groups that consisted of several families, typically 30 to 50 people. Everyone was skilled at all tasks needed for survival, regardless of individual abilities. These tribes sometimes joined together into larger tribes of tribes, for a knees-up or when there was more woolly mammoth than one tribe could eat.

For example, by the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya there are 97 fossilised footprints made by 20 individuals, carbon dated to 1.5 million years ago. It is thought that this group was hunting, foraging or on a border patrol together.

For the vast majority of the past 2 million years of evolution, our great * 10^5 grandparents were egalitarian and used a variety of levelling behaviours (such as monogamy, food sharing among non-family members and inequity aversion) to reduce inequality. 

Surviving and thriving was an equal group activity. 

Even with the advent of agriculture 1,988,000 years later (i.e. 12,000 years ago), which saw a shift from a nomadic lifestyle to permanent settlements, we humans still lived and worked in nested sets of multidisciplinary groups: a family, an extended family, a clan (village) and a tribe (a collection of villages).  In this agrarian society the whole community was involved in both decision making and food production. The whole community worked together. 

The beginnings of division of labour

The first complex societies arose in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley and China around five thousand years ago.  Complex societies have states, hierarchical organisations managed by administrative specialists (bureaucracies). A typical complex society is inegalitarian, there are ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. States are usually categorised by at least three hierarchical levels above the local community. Mesopotamia saw the emergence of city states which were governed by a ‘lugal’ (king), who governed together with councils of elders and councils of younger men, over the majority. Complex societies arose due to increasing agricultural productivity enabling a surplus of food and advances in military technologies.

One of the earliest divisions of labour was the splitting of agriculture and governance, with a few elite rising to power as rulers and land owners, with the majority of people remaining as food producers.  Previously, where tribes or tribes of tribes had chiefs, now we start to see kings and nobility. The working classes would have to pay a tax to the landowning elite, creating a large disparity in wealth and power between people. 

And yet the vast majority of people still lived in small nested groups (families, villages, tribes) as self-sufficient multidisciplinary teams able to provide food, shelter and clothing for themselves. 

‘All roads lead to Rome’. Origins of the word tribe

Fast forward 2,000 years, to around the year 1000 BCE, and we see the rise of one of the most well known complex societies, the Roman Empire. Or rather, the Roman Kingdom, then the Roman Republic, then the Roman Empire. During Ancient Rome (753 BCE to 476 AD) 7 Kings led the monarchy for 300 years, which was followed by 530 years of Republic and then 70 Emperors for the following 500 years. The average reign of an Emperor was eight years with more than half meeting a violent and untimely end. This particular division of labour had a short life expectancy!  

It is from Rome that we have the word ‘tribe’. Rome was founded by Romulus the first King of Rome. Romulus divided the population into three tribes, Ramnes, Titienses and Luceres, who represented three ethnic groups who lived in the area around Rome, the Latins, the Sabines and the Etruscans.  

The word tribe is derived from the Latin term tribus, the etymology of which is ‘three be’, or ‘three peoples’, representing the first three groups. The original ‘three in a box’ leadership model!

Romulus established the Roman Senate, choosing one hundred men, who were existing family clan leaders within the tribes. The word senate derives from the Latin word senex, which means "old man", the word thus meaning "assembly of elders".  I expect that the definition of old then was that you’d made it into your mid 30s (the average life expectancy in Ancient Rome being 33 years old)! 

The senate fulfilled mostly an advisory function. Their descendants became known as patricians, forming one of two major social classes. The other class known as plebs or plebeians consisted of everyone else, including slaves. The Roman Senate was one of the most enduring institutions, surviving the monarchy, the republic and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It also serves as inspiration for the naming of today's US Senate. The implication for today is that of stratified social classes, the elite and the plebs, those deciding and those doing, those governing and those producing.

Another word often used for a complex society is civilisation. The word civilisation itself comes from the Latin word civis, meaning ‘citizen’ or ‘city-dweller’.

Civilisations have a number of characteristics. These include large population centres (cities), unique architecture, shared communication, systems for administering territories (governance, bureaucracy), division of people in socioeconomic classes (e.g. white collar and blue collar in today's terms) and increasing division of labour. These sound remarkably like the characteristics of large organisations!

The rise of division of labour

As simple societies became complex societies, as towns and cities grew, as bureaucracies were installed and trade increased, this led to increasing division of labour. For example, leaders, clergy, military, administrators, blacksmiths, potters, leather workers, bakers, brewers, masons, shepherds and so on. 

The Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan) saw the growth of urban centres around 2,000 BCE, including the city of Harappa. Most Harappa city dwellers were traders or artisans who lived in the same area as others with the same occupation. This may be the first Business District in the world!

In China, between 1,000 to 200 BC, there was the notion of the ‘four occupations’ or the ‘four categories of the people’. There were scholars (gentry), farmers, craftsmen and merchants. These categories were not a class system, nor were they hereditary. This social order was adopted throughout the Chinese cultural sphere, where in Japan it was called shinōkōshō, which became a hereditary caste system.

In Britain, the Anglo-Saxon age followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire from 410 to 1066. Anglo-Saxon England was made up of seven kingdoms, each ruled by a King. Each kingdom was a tribe, the largest being the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The majority of people lived in villages, living and working in multidisciplinary teams. For example, spinning wool, tending to livestock and growing food. 

There was a hierarchy with the king at the top, followed by nobility which included lords and members of the clergy. Below that were knights and then peasants, who made up the majority. The king(s) gave land to the nobility, in return for raising money and armies. In turn, nobility would distribute some of their land to knights who would raise an army to fight for the king. And then peasants were allowed to work on the land, in return for paying taxes and keeping some of the food produced. The very lowest class were slaves who held minimal rights.

Hence, emerging five thousand years ago, as we went from simple societies to complex societies, we started to see a less egalitarian society, with growing power and wealth inequalities. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. We also see the beginnings of division of labour, with rulers and producers. The vast majority of people are producers who are still working together in nested multidisciplinary teams, in families, villages, tribes and kingdoms, as has been the case for the past two million years.


Some of the earliest guilds date from around 2,000 years BCE, in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Guilds are associations of artisans and craftspeople who oversee the practice of their craft or trade in a given territory. For example, mariners, ship builders, metal workers, locksmiths, armourers, shoe makers to name a few. 

Guilds existed in Roman times, known as collegia (meaning community, society, guild: the origin of today’s use of the word college). These were voluntary associations of artisans and had strong social connections with religious ceremonies and guild dinners. Archeological digs at the site of an artificial harbour in Rome, the Portus, revealed inscriptions in a shipyard constructed around the year 100 AD indicating the existence of a shipbuilders guild.

In the context of traditional large organisations of today, guilds are similar to role based silos. For example marketing, sales, operations, hardware engineering, software engineering, project management, product management, business analysis, finance, legal and so on. 

Guilds became increasingly common and powerful in medieval times, often holding exclusive rights of doing business in a particular town or city. In France, guilds were called corps de metiers. By the mid 13th century there were more than 100 guilds in Paris, growing to 350 by the 14th century. In Barcelona, Spain, a shoemakers guild is recorded in 1208. In the UK, in the City of London, more than 110 guilds, called livery companies, still survive today. The oldest is the Worshipful Company of Weavers which can trace its existence back to the year 1130.  

Guilds maintained standards, collected taxes, determined working hours and conditions and often controlled labour, production, prices, wages and trade. Guilds were also shared learning communities, with a progression from apprentice, to journeyman (‘day man’, from French journee), to master and then grandmaster. There was an expectation that you would mentor and develop those more junior and less experienced. 

In the evolution of ways of working, guilds are a sign of increasing specialisation and division of labour. People in guilds are artisans, where it takes many years to become a master craftsperson. People see the fruit of their labour, producing value end-to-end, from raw materials to a finished product and have proximity to the consumers.

For the majority of people life still centres around working in nested multidisciplinary teams. For example the 'putting out' system. Wool or cotton would be sent to rural households where a family would turn it into cloth. They cleaned the raw material, carded it, spun it into thread and weaved it into cloth on a loom, as a multidisciplinary team, working physically together, seeing the fruit of their labour.

We’re approximately two million years into our evolution and we still don’t yet have factory systems and specialisation at scale, with mechanisation, leading to unskilled labour. 

Learnings that we can take from guilds into today’s ways of working, include providing values, principles & standards for the craft across contexts, innovation in the craft, training and mentoring on the job with masters coaching apprentices, the ability to find expertise quickly and sharing learning in the craft across contexts. 

Fall of the guilds, rise of industrialisation

Guilds, often with monopolies on trade, started to reduce in significance in the 18th century, with laws promoting free trade and with the beginning of industrialisation. A law was passed in France in 1791 suppressing guilds and in 1803 the Napoleonic Code banned any coalition of workmen.

With a revolution in economics led by Adam Smith and others, corporations transitioned from being government or guild affiliated entities to being private economic entities. Smith wrote in his 1776 work ‘The Wealth of Nations’ that mass corporate activity could not match private entrepreneurship, because people in charge of others' money would not exercise as much care as they would with their own.

As a consequence of the decline of guilds, many former craftspeople were forced to seek employment in the emerging manufacturing industries, which involved lower skilled and lower paid jobs. 

It is at this time that we see the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution. In the early 1770s, for the first time, we see the introduction of the factory system, at scale. For the first time, we have extreme specialisation and non-animal powered mechanisation at scale, such that unskilled labour is able to replace skilled labour. Humans become cogs in the machine, not actually seeing the end-to-end production of value (e.g. from cotton to cloth). 

No longer, in this context, do we have skilled craftspeople and multidisciplinary teams. We now have humans serving the machines, with a very narrow, repetitive, unskilled task to do for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. So unskilled in fact that 75% of the workers at the first factory system at scale, Cromford Mills, were children. 

The implications for today’s ways of working

Historically, the vast majority of people are producers who are working together in nested, stable, multidisciplinary teams, in families, villages, tribes and kingdoms, as has been the case for the past two million years. This is how we have evolved, and from a neuroscience perspective how our brains have evolved.  We have not evolved in narrow, functional, role silos, without a view of the end value or the customer, passing the baton down the line, like a cog in a machine. 

With the shift from simple to complex societies, we start to see more ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. There are people who are governing and people who are producing. This leads to increasing wealth and power inequalities, which has been a common theme in ways of working. In addition, authoritarian, command & control, order-giver, order-taker type behaviours have been the norm, with language used such as overlooker, superior and subordinate.   

What we can take from mediaeval guilds, is the mentoring of craftspeople and the governing of quality. From apprentice, to journeyman, master (having to present a masterpiece) and then grandmaster. There was skill, there was coaching, there was a craft which took years to become accomplished at. There was line of sight of the value being realised, from raw materials to the finished product, able to take pride in the work and there was proximity to the consumer.  

After 250 years of humans as ‘resources’, as cogs in the machine, since the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution, we are now seeing a shift back to small, stable, multidisciplinary teams, with all the skills needed, seeing the value being realised regularly, with consumer proximity, in line with how we have evolved over the past two million years.

This has been enabled by the Age of Digital, with computers and robots able to increasingly perform the repetitive, mundane and in some cases, risky tasks that humans did in the past.  And, thankfully, we are seeing an increasing focus on more humane ways of working, on empathy, more supporting behaviour from leaders, and more focus on engagement and wellbeing. 

That said, ways of working from the first Industrial Revolution are still alive and kicking in our organisations today. We can trace the DNA back. Most large, traditional, organisations are using some approaches to work which date back to the 18th century, having evolved in a very different context. 

A radical change in Ways of Working in the first Industrial Revolution, starting 1771, is a topic we look at in the next post.

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