Home > Case Studies, Leadership & Management, Marketing Principles > Looking Forward – but don’t ignore what is behind you!

Looking Forward – but don’t ignore what is behind you!

I left school many years ago, but I still remember some of the lessons taught by Jeremy Rosen, who was, at that time, my headmaster. I’m still in contact with him – and both of us now have gray hair! In a recent newsletter he writes:

There’s a Russian proverb that goes, ‘He who looks to the past is in danger of losing an eye. But he who ignores the past is in danger of losing two eyes.’

Jeremy Rosen states that he doesn’t know if this is really a Russian proverb – he heard it from Lord Bullock, the historian, biographer of Hitler and Stalin, who was speaking at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem many years ago. However the origin is less important in this case than what is being said.

Too often, people make decisions based on insufficient information – they ignore the past, creating excuses saying that the past is a closed book – and base their decisions on the perceived problems of the present, tearing up all that has gone before in an effort to create a desirable future. Others take the opposite view – and dwell in the past, refusing to realize that it is the future that shapes our fortunes, not what has gone before.

In marketing and business the same rules apply. Some are “Risk seekers” – always anticipating a bright future, irrespective of warnings, and ignoring the past. Others are “Risk adverse” scared about what the future may bring – and essentially living in the past. In reality, businesses need to balance both approaches. They need to build for the future, and should grasp emerging opportunities with both hands. However this should be based on knowledge of the risks involved, and this can only come from prior experience and knowledge. Even brand new innovations are built on past knowledge.

There are organizations that seem to focus on past (or should that be passed) glories. They stress how they did this or that – and how they became the market leader through their past actions. However if they fail to see how the present has changed then they will inevitably lose this leadership position. There are numerous companies that have fallen because of this. One of the best examples is J Sainsbury – the UK supermarket giant, currently in the midst of a bidding battle. Sainsburys used to be the largest UK supermarket, but it lost direction, and with it share – it is now no longer the market leader. Sainsbury saw itself as the market leader, but failed to recognize the innovations and different approach of competitors such as Tesco and Asda (owned by Walmart). Essentially, Sainsbury was looking at the past and reveling in it, but in reality was ignoring the past and the lessons it held on success. Sainsbury had grown by being innovative – it was the first UK supermarket, building a major presence by giving customers what they wanted. However by not keeping both eyes open on what was happening in its market, it lost its market position.

A key business skill is being able to anticipate the future (using techniques such as scenario planning). This depends on using drivers and trends from the past to anticipate what could happen in the future. We need to look to the past and learn from it. However our aim should be to build a better future. This cannot come by ignoring what has gone before. Instead we should aim to understand why something happened, so that we can learn from it and not repeat the same mistakes. As George Santayana said in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There is a widely known Zen story that shows this in another way:

“When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.”

  1. March 31, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Risk AVERSE not ADVERSE!

  2. May 26, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Yes – you are correct, and picked me up on a linguistic error. However I’m not alone. Many others make the same error – you can check this doing a google search. There are many sites that use Risk Adverse instead of Risk Averse – including definition sites like http://www.moneyglossary.com/?w=Risk+Adversewhich defines the term as somebody seeking the least risky investment. Even a few scientific papers seem to get it wrong, so I’m in good (but incorrect) company.

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