The Power of the Past

The Purpose of this short rant is to attempt to bring us back to some reality.  Ground ourselves in some good old-fashioned experience; pay more than a fleeting raise of our oft-furrowed brows to the minds of the past; be curious, go against convention, be different, maybe even Think Differently!  By asking a critically important question relating to the future of our businesses – what can the minds of the past teach us about today and the future?  Because I have this terrible feeling that we are not learning from our mistakes of the past.  

It was a quote from Plato that got me thinking, along with the latest “Big Idea” series from Harvard Business Review.  The Plato quote, “Knowledge is the rediscovering of our own insight.”  Think about that.  Sounds like the Reflection Process to me, and remember, the best leaders are those that reflect the most (and we can only reflect about the past.)  But here Plato goes to the next step – rediscover our own insights, go back to them, make sure we have taken different actions as a result of them.  

The latest Big Idea series on HBR has focused on the magazines 100 years of history.  It has analysed the change in topics for every single published article over its 100 years of existence.  The result of that analysis is interesting:

  1. Operations and Finance Accounting has moved from the most published topic to the least 
  2. Strategy and Marketing has moved from the least published topic to the most
  3. Organisations and Human Resources have stayed about the same

So we have become less interested in the nuts and bolts of the business as technology has allowed us to do things in a way that wasn’t even dreamt of in 1922; we have become more interested in where our companies future lies and how it will continue to generate revenue in its markets; and our interest in how our organisations are structured and the people that get the work done has stayed the same.

So, the prevailing view that our current focus on “people” and how we can motivate and engage them is something specific for our times, has been a question 100 years old.  It’s not as a result of a new age of leadership; it’s not as a result of a “modern” focus on diversity and inclusion, it’s always been a focus.  Maybe it’s been a focus of the HBR editorial team, but they needed to sell the magazine so those topics must have been read.  But were they acted on.  Did they provide the opportunity for insight and different actions or were they just interesting.  Maybe we are now seeing what Plato suggested – we are rediscovering our insights.  

I must share with you the opening of the very first essay in Volume 1 Number 1:

“it is pertinent to inquire how the representative practises of business men generally may be made available … and how proper theory of business is to be obtained.  Without such a theory, business will continue to be unsystematic, haphazard, and for many men a pathetic gamble.”  To remedy that situation HBR would seek to provide “a better theoretical basis for executive action.”

Two points of note – firstly, women were obviously not the target market of HBR 1922!  And secondly, are those problems of 1922 much different to today?  Is the current era of uncertainty and turbulence a new thing?

We can spend too much time searching for the newest solution, at times.  Especially if we think the problem is entirely new and has never been faced before.  It has!  There have been greater minds than ours that have exercised their considerable intellect on most of the problems our businesses face today, and in the future.  Let’s spend some time listening to them first.  

Stay well, smell the flowers and challenge convention.


Phil Pickford

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