What can Homo Erectus teach you about making sustainable business decisions?

Friday, March 25, 2016 - 15:01

Who would have thought that the rolling green hills of the English countryside would be home to one of the most innovative and sustainable technological inventions ever created on Earth?

And no, it is not hiding a massive supercollider or a team of nuclear scientists, instead it is the place where the Acheulean hand ax was first uncovered. This tech device constitutes a significantly valuable and incredibly sustainable technology that was used for approximately 1.5 million years.

So what can commercial leaders learn from the Acheulean hand ax and how can they use these lessons to better their own company's use of technology?

Deriving optimal value from old processes

For the sake of accuracy, the Acheulean hand ax is not so much an ax but a scraping tool. Yet, it also has a different purpose. There is evidence that the ax was used as a source of other tools, specifically flakes, which were used as knives.

The Acheulean hand ax was not just a tool in and of itself, but also a platform for other technological innovation. In today's terms, we could say that populations of Homo Erectus were able to derive new developments from already existing sources that added value to their operations.

As a clear representation of sustainability, organisations can learn a few lessons from the sophisticated Acheulean ax. None more so than how can they can create value from what they have, rather than than from what others use.

But to do that, organisational leaders and those seeking leadership training need to be able to identify sources of value that can be used to generate ideas and new operational workflows. 

Breaking down innovation

Implementing new ideas that drive innovation does not mean doing away with the old, it can also and should also involve internal development.

A 2014 study from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research found that while open innovation does add value, it can only do so when there exists an internal management system that can successfully implement these new ideas.

Additionally, open innovation offers lacklustre results when developing and implementing new business processes and workflows, in comparison to internal sources. Relying on employees and management staff is not a weakness but is instead a viable and sustainable form of innovative strategic thinking.

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate - Margaret Heffernan

Value is more than just innovative creation

When Homo Erectus first developed the ax, the initial value was obvious. It opened up new ways of attaining raw material and allowed these populations to sustain themselves for more than a millennia. While this is incredible, the true innovation came from their ability to derive new value from the ax - in the form of flakes.

This is also the case for contemporary businesses. Simply offering new services can only take a business so far. According to the Harvard Business Review, while many innovative organisations are excellent at creating new value streams through new product, technological or service offerings, they lack the awareness to capture value when it arises.

For instance, Netflix was able to knock Blockbuster off its perch with the introduction of its online platform that offered personalised recommendations to customers as well as an unlimited supply of viewing opportunities. However, its true strength relied on transforming the older late fee mechanisms into a subscription model that derived additional value out of the tendency for customers to be tardy - without denigrating them.

In the same way Homo Erectus thought locally about creating new technological innovations, companies can use internal impulses to drive innovation and avoid the blind spot that comes with constant value creation.

Instead of always looking for the bright new innovation, executives need to also focus on capturing new value from local and internal sources. Be this in the form of employees or restructuring old processes, managers and leaders can make the most of what they have in hand - just like Homo Erectus did 1.5 million years ago.