By Brian Lucas
This one is for Clyde!
“Pride goes before destruction…”
– Proverbs 16:18[*]
How many enterprises are still not operating under an agile philosophy? How long can they continue to survive in an age fraught with constant change? I am not talking about software development, but the larger aspect of an enterprise’s organization structure, workflow and operations and even its lines of business. Being an agile enterprise is fast becoming a necessity for survival today. In a world of change how long can those stuck in inertia survive? Why won’t some organizations change? And can it become too late to change?
The numbers vary considerably depending upon what research or surveys you look at. Trends are evident though. The most significant ones are most new organizations embrace agile principles and agile organizations are proving to be more successful. Those are great topics to explore, but I wanted to address the last two questions, since I hear them most often asked. Why won’t some organizations change? And can it become too late to change?
There are many answers to the former question, but only one to the latter. Two reasons are predominate in why organizations refuse to become agile. Both are emotional and psychological in nature. One is fear. The other is pride.
Agile is a dramatic change from a clearly understood rigid hierarchic structure and operation with definitive areas of authority to something fluid that often appears to be chaotic. Management is forced to step outside of their comfort zone. They fear they will lose their significance and reason for being in the enterprise. It’s a very human and understandable response.
Pride is the other and more deadly emotion, because it blinds you and can lead to ultimate failure. Managers who arrogantly feel they can do no wrong and operate with unbridled hubris, can never see the writing on the wall until it is too late. And that brings us to the second question, can it be too late to change? The answer is, unfortunately, yes!
I was reminded of this when I was giving a talk about the dangers of pride to a religious congregation the other night. I used the biblical tale of Belshazzar as an example. Belshazzar, was reputed to be the firstborn son of Nabonidus and the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar II. He was Nabonidus’s coregent in the last years of the Neo Babylonian Empire. Despite some previous controversy, archaeological evidence in the form of ancient texts supports his biblical reference as king in Babylon. Here is Belshazzar’s story…[**]
…It is the evening of October 5, 539 B.C.E in Babylon, the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in ancient Mesopotamia. The mighty city straddles the Euphrates River, which wends its way down from the convergence of the Kara Suand the Murat Su in what will later become known as Southeastern Turkey. It joins the Tigris beyond Babylon to finally flow into the Persian Gulf. The city is a fortress, divided in equal parts along the left and right banks. Steep embankments and enormous walls built with great labor, both contain the river’s seasonal floods and protect it from invasion. Quays line the banks out onto which the huge, solid copper doors of the city walls open.
Gloom settles over the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with only the meager light of a waning moon to see by. The city however is awash in lamp and torch light. The sounds of riotous indulgence echo out. The air is permeated with sweet fragrances from the many terraced flower gardens and the aroma of cooking food, richly spiced. Heady wine flows endlessly from pitchers and urns, spilling over the rims of the abundant drinking vessels held by greedy hands.
Despite Babylon being under siege by the combined armies of Cyrus the Persian and his ally Darius the Mede, Belshazzar, in defiance, is celebrating a great feast for a thousand of his nobles. The Babylonians are haughty in their confidence of the famed city walls impregnability. They are well stocked with abundant supplies of food and drink and even luxury items. Across the entire city, a festive mood with dancing and over indulgences of all sorts can be seen. There is no fear in the minds of the Babylonians of impending disaster.
During the feast, Belshazzar, besot with wine, calls in a loud, arrogant voice for the vessels of the previously sacked temple of Jerusalem to be brought. Belshazzar along with his guests, wives and concubines proceed to drink wine from the consecrated chalices , while praising the Babylonian gods of gold, silver, copper, iron, wood, and stone.
As he is yet again raising his lips, a finely jeweled, golden goblet taken from the temple spoils, a woman screams in terror and points behind the king. An eerie silence falls, as all eyes turn to a wall behind the king’s table. In full view of everyone, a disembodied man’s hand is inscribing a message with glowing letters on the plastered wall. It reads, “MEʹNE MEʹNE TEʹKEL PARʹSIN.”
Belshazzar pales, his knees tremble as he half rises, shaking in fear. In a quaking voice, he cries out to bring his advisors. “Any man who reads this writing and tells me its interpretation will be clothed with purple, a gold necklace will be placed around his neck, and he will rule as the third one in the kingdom,” he cries. Yet, despite their efforts, none can translate the message.
The queen now quietly enters and advises Belshazzar to seek the council of the aged prophet (how many times have truth tellers been ignored in business until it is too late?) Daniel, who was made chief of the Magicians, Astrologers, Chaldeans, and Soothsayers by Nebuchadnezzar. When summoned, Daniel humbly enters clad in simple dress that marks a stark contrast to the lavish gowned throng. He tells Belshazzar in a quiet, yet steady voice.
“You may keep your gifts and give your presents to others. However, I will read the writing and make known its interpretation. As for you, O king, Jehovah granted to Nebuchadnezzar the kingdom with greatness and honor and majesty. All peoples of all nations and languages, trembled before him. Whomever he wanted, he killed or let live, exalted or humiliated. But when his heart became haughty and his spirit hardened, he was brought down from the throne of his kingdom, and his dignity was taken away from him. You, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, although you knew all of this. Instead, you exalted yourself against the Lord of the heavens, and you defamed the holy vessels of his house. So the hand of Jehovah has written this upon your wall.”
“God has numbered the days of your kingdom and has brought it to an end. You have been weighed in the balances and found lacking. Your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.”
Though Belshazzar proceeded to invest Daniel with the position of third ruler in the kingdom, he was not fated to live out the night. For while they had been reveling, the combined Median and Persian army, led by Gobryas, governor of Gutiumentered the city via the channel of the Euphrates River, which had been quietly diverted into trenches Cyrus had secretly dug. Those the attackers met were struck down and slain. Others fled into their houses, with some raising a hue and cry. Gobryas, however, ordered his company to cover their cries with their own shouts, mimicking the revelers. Thus, making their way by the quickest route, they soon found themselves before the king’s palace.
Even as Daniel spoke his final words to Belshazzar, the men of Gobryas’s company that were appointed to attack the palace guards, rushed on them as they lay drinking round a blazing fire. As the din of slaughter grew louder, the king bid his retainers to see what the commotion meant. When they opened the palace gates, Gobryas’s men, darted in and cut them all down. Mighty Babylon had fallen into the hands of the Medes and Persians, as Jehovah had foretold through his prophets.
History is riddled with examples of those ignoring the perils of pride of which they were well aware. Even Julius Caesar, in The Gallic Wars said, “Qui petit alta nimis, retro lapsus ponitur imis.” He that asks too much, slips back the deepest. He did not follow his own wisdom and was assassinated as a result. Belshazzar did not understand the writing on the wall until it was too. How many others today, will do the same?
Note: The picture is a wonderful depiction entitled, “Belshazzar’s Feast.” It was created circa 1635, by Rembrandt van Rijn, the greatest Dutch painter during the Dutch Golden Age that was antithetical to the Baroque style that dominated the rest of Europe.
 from Akkadian, meaning “Protect His Life”
 See Kyros und Nabonid: Propaganda und Gegenpropaganda by W. von Soden and The reign of Nabonidus king of Babylon 556-539 B.C. by A. Beaulieu (1989)
 See Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon by Wiseman, D.J. (1985)
 See Nabonidus and Belshazzar by R. P. Dougherty, (1929) and Ancient Near Eastern Texts edited by J. Pritchard (1974)
 According to the Gregorian calendar
 Eastern Euphrates
 Western Euphrates
 How many businesses are under siege by their competition and either ignore it in arrogance or are unaware?
 See Anabasis I. IX by Xenophon
 See The Search for Darius the Mede by William H. Shea
 See Daniel (5:1)
 See historians Herodotus and Xenophon
 How many examples are there of companies over indulging, glutting themselves on their profits instead of reinvesting in modernization and adaptation?
 See the Cyropaedia (7:5.26-30)
 How many seemingly unassailable companies with enormous working capital have also failed?
[*] This wisdom has become iconic in the saying, “Pride goeth before a fall!”
[**] This is a dramatization though effort has been made to make it historically accurate.
Interesting post Brian! I have followed you for about a year now. You often write about morality and ethical aspects that you slip into your overall agile theme. This however is the first time I have seen you with a biblical reference. It is a good tale, you pull the reader in with sights and sounds and descriptions that appeal to the senses. I very much enjoyed your post about agile being a return to common sense as well. Still I wonder if some people will be turned of by a religious reference. Today you can draw enormous flack when professing and reference to faith. I appreciate you expanding the horizons of your blog with this post and encourage you to write more in this vein.
Lucas poses a good question. I wish I could be more positive on this issue. Look at the correlation between 1%ers and larger corporations paying little or no taxes and executive management protected by golden parachutes paying no penalties for poor decisions. Unless something fundamentally changes legislatively little fairness, transparency, or equity will be seen in business.