Friday, April 13, 2012

Looking to the past for ideas

Satchel Paige has been quoted as saying "never look back, someone may be gaining on you", but I think it's our natural proclivity to "look back".  Looking back to our past is a way of reviewing and learning from our successes and mistakes.  Further, history is concrete.  We know what happened in the past, while everything that will happen, or could happen, in the future is still a mystery.

For another famous quote, Spinoza (or others, depending on your source) is attributed with "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it".  I think that sentiment is true where human nature is concerned.  We humans repeat the same mistakes in politics, in government and in personal affairs, often just in larger settings and with more significant consequences.  Just as the Spanish Civil War was clearly a precursor and training ground for World War II, so to the Algerian war was to Viet Nam and eventually even into Afghanistan.  And, as any historian can tell you, everyone who went into Afghanistan regretted it and left in less than noble terms.  But does careful study of the past tell us about need for innovation in the future? 

The question for executives and managers is:  should I study the past, which is fixed and relatively unmoving, concrete and known for ideas?  Or should I attempt to ascertain the future to find new ideas?  Both approaches are full of promise and fraught with uncertainty.

Studying the past provides far greater clarity.  We may not always understand the reasons WHY something happened, but we know WHAT happened.  In our modern management circles, clarity of purpose often trumps insights about opportunities that are unclear.  The problem with studying the past is that while ideas may be prevalent, and some even unexplored, the past is for the most part an open book.  All the insights that may be there are available to anyone, so your insights had better be good, and further, you'd better be able to deploy new products or services based on insights gleaned from the past very quickly.

Studying the future is quite the opposite.  There is no certainty or clarity once we look beyond a year or two, and, with the pace of change accelerating, attempting to forecast needs and wants five to ten years into the future is highly uncertain.  We don't know the WHO or the WHAT or the WHY of future needs.  But with careful thinking, aggregating weak signals into trends and excellent synthesis, we can begin to define more definitive patterns and shapes about the future, which can signal new needs and opportunities.  These will NOT be definitive, so clarity and certainty won't be served, but those who are willing to risk the investments based on their careful studies will be rewarded.

In business, our first approach is always to look to history.  Have we faced this issue before?  Have we had a problem or initiative like this before?  Can we relate this to something we've done in the past?  The goal is to find existing patterns, reduce the problem to something in alignment with known approaches and move ahead.  But many times historical patterns or knowledge aren't helpful or aren't in synch with future needs.  We often don't have as much comfort looking to the future and finding solutions and alternatives as we do finding corollaries for problems in the past.

The choice, to me, is obvious.  Far too often our teams are too comfortable looking to the past for answers, seeking clear and concrete needs in a past that is an open book, rather than looking ahead, harnessing the information that's available and making judgements based on the signals that are available.  Not only are we doomed to repeat history, we are doomed to do so lacking knowledge, services and products that would have made life better if only we were willing to understand that most good ideas lie in the future, not the past.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:26 PM


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