Organizations are tempus-dysfunctional in the sense that their communication to customers, stakeholders and employees is primarily preoccupied with the present or the future, more seldom regarding the past (the exception being the immediate past, most often represented by the Annual report).
So what? Why dwell on the past when we can make a difference here and now? Why should we be looking back when we could use that time to plan for the future?
The answer of course is that humans are pattern-searching creatures, a feature that has helped us evolve, survive and rapidly thrive as a species. When put into a business context: by analyzing our past, making plausible conclusions about the main reasons for organizational successes or failures, we discover patterns of cause and effect that ultimately support our decision making going forward, so we hopefully can avoid the old Karl Marx adage “history repeats itself, first as a tragedy then as a farce”. If we dig into humankind’s remarkable evolution and the successes behind it, we find that there is much more to it than just our ability to discover patterns and learn from them.
I recently finished a fascinating book by Dr Yuval Noah Harari from the university of Oxford, “Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind” (www.vintage.books.co.uk). Through impressive and extensive research he builds a robust case for several human traits that has propelled us forward in Darwinistic supersonic speed over the past 200,000 years. Dr Harari especially points to an era that started approximately 70,000 years ago, an era that he calls the Cognitive Revolution. In the words of Dr Harari, the Cognitive Revolution is characterized by the emergence of fictive language that gave us “the ability to transmit information about things that do not really exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies and human rights”. The wider consequences of this ability was that it enabled “cooperation between very large numbers of strangers”, he continues: “Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call “history”.
Think about it for a minute: If we jointly share a strong belief in things that do not really exist physically, we start to act and behave accordingly, even if we really are “large numbers of strangers”. Doesn’t this sound like today? The results of these joint efforts can, as business history tells us, be astonishing.