Every problem carries the seeds of some opportunity. I came across the term ‘gravitational force’ being used in two contexts – positive and negative – recently. One was among the flood of space-related articles following the successful Mars Perseverance landing. One article inevitably mentioned “gravity assist”. It’s a technique used by space mission designers to use the gravity of planetary bodies to change a spacecraft’s velocity. Using a planet’s gravity, almost like a magnet, to pull the spacecraft can reduce the fuel needed on the journey. So, in this context gravity is good.
And then, while reading a different article on why innovators should study the rise and fall of the Venetian empire, I came across the term “gravitational force of the status quo”. It was in an excellent HBR piece by Piero Formica on disruptive innovation. In the 17th and 18th centuries, global trade patterns changed significantly. However, Venice’s trade strategies did not change enough, leading to the downfall of its empire. Formica’s lesson is that the stronger the assumption that the future will function the same as today, the greater the “gravitational force of the status quo”. Thus, in this context, gravity is bad.
Gravity Assist from the Status Quo?
That begs the question, “do the forces of the status quo always need to be bad?” Or is there an equivalent of good “gravity assist” lurking among those forces? Most change management literature refers to the status quo in the context of antibodies to change. But, status quo doesn’t have to be all negative. I believe there can be some good within it, that we should situationally seek out. To be clear, in the case of the Venetian Republic, the “bad” forces of the status quo dramatically outweighed the “good”. My point, however, is different – there can occasionally be a baby within the status-quo bathwater.
Innovation Fuels the Venetian Empire
The Venetian Empire (697-1797AD) is a good case-study on disruption. And, I’ve often felt that it is given the short shrift whenever the great empires of the past are counted. The Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian and even Ottoman empires, all get much more press. Maybe we need to get a hashtag of #RespectTheVenetians going. After all, an empire which lasted 11 centuries, was the top European military and economic superpower of its time, used mass production several centuries before Henry Ford, created the world’s first weapons factory, developed the western world’s first modern management and accounting practices, directly fed the Renaissance, and dominated global trade, deserves some respect.
That’s just half the story though. The other half is that the republic emerged from a marshy lagoon populated by people fleeing from periodic attacks by the Huns and the Germanic tribes on the Italian mainland. To go from having no traditional resources to becoming a super-power, is a story of constant innovation. And, the prime example is the empire’s shipyard, the Venetian Arsenal. It powered the republic via a marvel of supply chain, mass production, innovation and organization management which was unbeatable at the time. At its peak it built one galley a day, while other countries could manage only one every few months.
Mass Production Before its Time
The Arsenal is sometimes called the first factory in the world. At its best, it had 16,000 workers. Parts were standardized, and each major component of this early bill of materials was produced by a specialized team of workers. The necessary parts were then assembled by another team, following which the ship would be moved to another part of the building for furnishing. Using the canals, the Arsenal had a moving assembly line. The galleys were moved along the factory during their stages of construction. The ships moved to the materials and workers, instead of the other way around.
Using advanced inventory management techniques, the Arsenal often kept up to 100 galleys in different stages of production and maintenance. For its workers, it provided the first pension system in Europe. And it had my favorite employee benefit of them all, free wine for its workers. By the way, we’re not talking about a glass for lunch. Oh no. At its highest, worker consumption hit 5 liters a day!
Decline of Innovative Technology or the Business Model?
A combination of factors caused Venice’s eventual decline. The new shipping route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to Asia disrupted Venice’s exclusive supply routes over the Mediterranean. Then, the discovery of the Americas took global trade westwards instead of the east alone.
Meanwhile, Venice was embroiled in 300 years of war with the Turks. It lost political clout with previous European allies. Technology-wise, newer galleon-style ship designs arose, which were more stable in the rough ocean waters, as opposed to the Venetian galleys that performed better in the calmer Mediterranean.
So, was there nothing in the status quo which could have helped? The data shows otherwise. The Arsenal was still a powerful force. Galileo was a consultant at the factory. It commanded 10 percent of the state’s revenue. Explorers like Christopher Columbus originated from nearby Genoa. The 17th and 18th centuries were still mostly about sea-faring technology. Arguably, there was much more “gravity assist” from the Arsenal that could have been leveraged by the republic. And, that’s something we can learn from in disruptive times.
Assistance From the Gravitational Force of the Status Quo
The fact is, very few of our modern digital strategies look for “gravity assist”. Existing technologies, business partnerships, and importantly, legacy people resources are not co-opted when leading change. We’re inclined to gloss over existing, stable capabilities. Employees who question change or older technologies tend to be ignored. That’s a missed opportunity. Spacecraft science tells us otherwise. If these assets are there and they’re free, just reach out and get an assist.