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Placing the Past in Perspective for the Future


It’s an old joke: The past, present, and future walk into a bar. It was tense.

Okay, it is also corny, but the role of the past in deciding the best course of action for the present and future is tricky.

We live in a world where doing what you have always done doesn’t necessarily lead to the same results. Past success only proves that you used to know what works.

If you pay attention to the motivational memes populating social media, you will hear that the past has no new information to offer and should be ignored – or at the very least unlearned – to ensure success.

Societies have ignored the past before and experienced similarly questionable results. The conditions that led to the housing bubble bursting in 2009 shared an eerie resemblance to the Dutch Tulip Bubble of 1637.

Likewise, the call to keep immigrants from overrunning the United States and its economy has been heard numerous times before the current iteration to close the southern border. In the 1750’s, John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court said that we should “erect a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of the Catholics.” Chinese immigrants were the target of scorn in the 1890’s and the Jews from Poland in 1920.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Even if you believe that history can’t actually repeat itself, the sentiment attributed to Mark Twain that it “often rhymes” can’t be ignored.

Preventing the past from dictating the future is one of today’s great leadership challenges. The solution, however, isn’t ignoring the past. Rather, it is placing the past into its proper perspective. The past may not have anything new to offer, but its messages are often important.

Separating Past Lessons from Blind Loyalty

There was a time, 1985 in fact, when Blockbuster Video was a disruptive force in the home entertainment industry. There were 7,000 video rental stores in the United States in 1983. Three years later, the number had grown to 19,000. Most were small independently owned stores. Blockbuster, however, created the first truly national brand, and in the process did to others what Netflix did to it.

Unfortunately, Blockbuster had become blindly loyal to its belief that retail stores – and the late fees that they generated – rather than DVD’s by mail was a potentially disruptive model. It would have seen that customer convenience in the form of readily accessible stores had driven its growth. Likewise, that lesson from the past would have translated into the purchase of the yet-to-be profitable Netflix for $50 million.

Blockbuster isn’t the only company that didn’t translate what made it successful in the past to a potential for the future. Perhaps Yahoo would have purchased both Google and Facebook if it had understood that its success was grounded in using technology to connect people.

Past success doesn’t have to limit future opportunities. Netflix, for example, successfully added a streaming business to its industry-leading DVD-by-mail model. Reed Hastings has consistently focused on What’s Next to add value for the customer while not allowing lessons from the past to grow into blind loyalty for the way things have always been done.

The present should be guided more by the future than the past. It can be a tense arrangement unless you prevent the lessons of the past from becoming blind loyalty that resists change.