On Tuesday I went to the exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors in Washington DC (on until March 31). . It's captivating, not just beautifully curated but in the story that it tells. The story I heard and saw was one of focused organization design on a colossal scale.
The UK's British Museum website gives a very brief history of the establishment of the unified empire established under Qin Shihuangdi, its First Emperor (259 – 210 BC):
Before its unification under Qin Shihuangdi, its First Emperor (259 – 210 BC), China was made up of seven major states which were often at war with each other, vying for power and supremacy. Historians call this time the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC).
The First Emperor's ancestors were from a small state in the far west of the region called Qin (pronounced chin). The Qin were horse breeders for the ruling Zhou people (pronounced joe). After the Zhou gave them land for the task, they began to organise themselves and develop political skills. They gradually assumed power, giving their leaders the title of 'Duke of Qin' and then in 325 BC raising it to 'King of Qin'.
When they conquered and occupied the lands that belonged to the Zhou, the Kings of Qin also felt they had inherited the right to rule from them. That feeling fuelled the ambition of the 13 year old boy Ying Zheng, who became King of Qin in 246 BC.
In 221 BC the King of Qin defeated the last of the Warring States and gave his state's name to the unified empire. Historians believe that this is the origin of the western word China.
So here is a story of a man who united an enormous territory – a modern day parallel being mergers and acquisitions by a company. He did it (as far as historians can tell) by systematic approaches, some big, some small. Here's an eclectic list that I mentally compiled as I walked around the exhibition.
1. Establishing a rigid bureaucracy with merit points for moving up (and down) the hierarchy.
2. Indicating position in the hierarchy by certain features (e.g. number of tassels on hat)
3. Standardizing certain things – the coinage, the diameter and width of cart-wheels (so all carts could travel in the same tracks)
4. Instituting an assembly line production system with highly orchestrated quality controls, for example, there were a standard range of body parts for the terracotta warriors so they each figure could be assembled from the range but look slightly different as the parts were interchangeable. (Nose and eyebrow types for example).
5. Dividing military and civilian responsibilities.
6. Ensuring policies and procedures were complied with
All these are evident in today's organizations. The Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, China Eye magazine Issue 13, 2007 has an article on the film 'Hero' set at the time of this First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. I haven't seen the film yet but it's now on my list. It's an article worth reading as it expands on some of the themes of organization. I came away thinking that the principles for organizing enterprises (empires or companies) haven't changed that much between then and now. The differences we're beginning to see are related to the advent of collaborative technologies and social media which along for different forms of organizing. I wonder how that will unfurl as tradition meets with opportunity to organize differently. (Just looking at Google v Italian government).