This One Neat Trick Made Alexander the Conqueror of the Known World

Alexander conquered the known world with a simple innovation. It didn’t require a complex new technology; we would call it a “process change.” Instead of giving men shields to protect themselves, the Greeks overlapped their shields to form an impenetrable barrier, a technique they called a “phalanx.”

In these phalanx formations, a soldier’s shield was (according to Gerard Butler) intended to cover himself and the man to his left. The success of the entire formation rested on each individual, but the responsibility of each individual extended to only one other person. It was a manageable, achievable, even simple goal. What’s more, each soldier was able to give up some of his own shield with the knowledge that the man beside him was shielding him in turn. (Unless you were on the far right–that guy was kinda screwed.)

I’m sure someone has taken this idea somewhere, slapped it on a posted and put the word “TEAMWORK” under it. But this isn’t just “teamwork.” “Teamwork” was taking down a mammoth thousands of years earlier. The phalanx was something a little different. Instead of being something abstract like “teamwork,” it was a very simple, practical invention based on two rules:

  1. Each man covers the next man’s weakness.
  2. Covering the man next to you is as important as covering yourself.

If you could apply this technique to a culture–the culture of your immediate team at work, or of your entire company, or of an entire nation–a culture of covering the person to your left–could that culture benefit as much from its resulting unity as an ancient Greek phalanx?

For it to work, there is a hiring issue and a management issue.

The hiring side depends upon hiring a diverse set of people–not just “diversity hiring,” but hiring people with very different perspectives and strengths within the context of the core set of skills necessary to a team. This requires complementing working skills (such as project planning) with social skills (such as empathy).

The management side depends upon horizontal management methods, which is to say peer management. Rather than being responsible only upward, I am also responsible sideways to and for one or more people. Their success is my success.

There are a few possible approaches that I have not personally had the chance to test or observe in a business environment. One is the “linked chain” approach that is seen in some less-formal organizations: Each individual reports to one peer and is reported to by another. (This is a way of placing responsibility for communication on one individual in the relationship; it doesn’t mean the reportee won’t also be asking for help from the reporter.) Instead of seeing these people as higher or lower in the hierarchy, they are peers who are responsible for one another. In a managed organization, the chain can be more effectively “linked” by pairing complementary skill sets, so that one’s strength can cover another’s weakness. By virtue of linking, additional skill sets can quickly be brought in by the rest of the team, especially on larger teams.

Have you had any experiences trying to develop “phalanx” structures in your organization? I would love to hear about it in the comments.