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The one missing ingredient to your strategy for the future: the past

February 1, 2018


I married into a wonderful Italian family that loves nothing more than telling (and retelling) stories about the past. They light up the dining room like holiday lights. There is a particularly famous one about my wife when she was very young and at a restaurant.


She had placed her order and the waiter was taking too long. Famously she stood on her chair and cried out, "Don't they know I'm hungry!!"  When the story is told, we all repeat the line in unison.  It's mainly a funny story that we enjoy revisiting, one of many we can pull up from the great well of family history. But it is also instructive. When my wife is hungry, she needs to eat and delay will not be tolerated. This is very helpful information.


There is insight in history:  family history but also organizational history.  But many might be missing the connection, especially when it comes to strategy formation. We are working on a new sustainability strategy for our school which includes a new center. As part of this visioning work, I have taken time to look backward.


The trouble with being "forward-looking"

The tendency to invest more our focus on the future is understandable.  Especially in the U.S., the mainstream culture applauds the future and mainly discounts the past.  That is painting with a broad brush but in general it is true. 

And many working in sustainability are predisposed to this future orientation.  We even label certain companies with the compliment of being "forward-looking".  What would it mean to be a "backward-looking" company! We have visions of "disruptive innovation" and "changing the narrative" and even like to declare that things are "broken":  the budgeting process, energy management, quarterly reporting, decision-making systems, compensation, silos, etc. 


This mentality can lead, perhaps unintentionally, to throwing out the old for the sake of the new.