A different way of thinking

I’ve just returned from a much needed quiet period in Merida, Mexico. Actually, the locals call it by the state’s name, Yucatan, and usually refer to Mexico the way Hawaiians refer to the mainland.

The highlight of an otherwise uneventful trip was our day at Uxmal. Formerly a Mayan city of about 25,000, it is thought to have been the site of the Mayan equivalent of a graduate school for the sons of Shamans. The Shamans ran Mayan government, so Uxmal was kind of the Harvard Business School of its day.

What did a rising Mayan Shaman learn in the 7th century? Astronomy, of course. Their calendar and observatories rivaled modern day science. Mathematics as well. The Mayans, independent of the Arabs, invented the concept of zero- the null place keeper that enables all higher mathematics. A written language (the only one in the new world) Certainly they learned the political, economic and diplomatic complexities that were involved dealing with a civilization encompassing some 8,000 cities with commerce, highways, alliances and mail service.

What didn’t they learn? Engineering. The Mayans never discovered the true arch, nor the use of the wheel. No wheeled transportation, no pulleys, no block and tackle. No iron working or steel. On one hand they were pre-neolithic, on the other nearly 20th century. Part of their society advanced 4,000 years ahead of the other part.

That’s a long time. Certainly if you have the intellectual curiosity to do mathematics, eventually someone would want to apply it to your buildings and transportation, right?

Apparently not. It seems a whole civilization could have a blind spot to what seem like obvious core skills. Funny, but I see a lot of companies that behave the same way. They say “Look what we have built.” without really considering what they might be able to do if they just filled in the blanks.

Lawyers, engineers and accounting firms with recognized expertise, who have no sales or marketing function, but survive on clients that find them. Sales-based organizations that run fast enough to find acorns aplenty, but without a plan or financial controls. Manufacturers who are the very best at one particular thing- and just accept the business cycle of the industry they supply as a fact of life.

Start the new year by refreshing your SWOT. It’s important to know what you are good at, but it’s also important to watch for your blind spots. They will sneak up on you at the most inconvenient times.

Remember, the Mayan cities are ruins. As impressive as they were, they couldn’t withstand a couple of thousand guys with steel armor and weapons.

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