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The Neanderthals were not bad people. Recent research has found that they might have had larger brains than Homo sapiens, that they used basic tools and that they buried their dead. Why then did they lose the evolutionary competition with our ancestors, their contemporary Homo sapien cousins?

I was not there to personally witness this competition, but I have been able to draw some conclusions from recent evolutionary studies which could relate to todays business organizations.

Homo sapiens, having evolved from hunting to farming, lived in more densely populated areas than the thinly spread Neanderthal hunters. The resulting social interaction made the exchange of ideas and products easier. Members of the group became specialists who competed with but depended on other specialists. They also learned to be problem solvers. Together, they became stronger than any single individual might have been. Trade with other Homo sapien groups introduced new ways of doing things. Their collective intelligence allowed them to innovate and adjust to changing conditions, while the Neanderthals, more isolated and individualistic, kept on doing the same old things year after year until they became extinct.

How does your company shape up? Does it keep on keeping on in the same old manner, as though market conditions and customer requirements will never change? Is a large part of its income derived from products or services which have been around forever, but which have become commodities, subject to fierce price competition in the marketplace? Is it afraid to cannibalize an existing high-margin product by introducing a new one with greater future potential, allowing some competitor to do it first?

And what about the free exchange of ideas? Are new approaches and concepts from ordinary employees enthusiastically received – or routinely smothered in bureaucratic channels? Are top executives receptive to opinions and points of view which may differ from theirs? Do managers occasionally get out of their offices and talk to customers? Are key professional and management employees encouraged to attend trade meetings and seminars in order to pick up new ideas, both formally and informally, from others who are active in the business? Do they keep current by reading trade journals and other material describing advances in their area of responsibility?

Are new approaches to problem solving encouraged, or is it worked before, so it will work again the rule at your company? Are employees allowed to fail without penalty once in a while? Are candidates for employment who look or act a little different than the usual company employee, but who might still be able to make a significant contribution, rejected out of hand?

The most successful companies are run by managers who are not afraid of new ideas and innovative ways of doing things, even if these ideas come from the other side. It is note-worthy that former president Bill Clinton, the consummate politician, in a recent speech made a point of telling Yale seniors that they should listen to people with whom they disagree. That is a good idea anywhere, in any organization, at any time, for modern Homo sapien managers.

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