HINDSIGHT, or looking back, is often considered a useless skill, as it refers to the past and does not help change the present. More useful for change management is foresight — looking forward.
But, is there a need to choose between these two views?
A driver needs both a windshield and a rear view mirror to get to his destination safely. Hindsight is a way of understanding what already happened and how matters can be improved the next time around. This is the reason why coaches watch videos of their most awful blowout defeats to understand what went wrong. (The star kept losing the ball and missing his shots.) Observations gathered from these painful replays can spell victory in the next games, after the needed adjustments.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2012 book Antifragile, finds that projecting the shape of the future based on the patterns of the past is seldom helpful. He dismisses such an approach as “postdiction” (opposite of prediction) with the past dictating the future. Life is not linear and what happened before may not lead to any future pattern. Predictions based on history do not work in a discontinuous world, full of unforeseen developments, like a pandemic or a personal financial collapse.
There are, however, stories that unravel in reverse. In flashbacks lie the solution to a puzzle.
In the murder mystery, the story opens with the discovery of a corpse. From here, our trusty detective reconstructs the victim’s life, his associates and family, and how he died. This leads him to the tangle of motives, opportunities (no alibis) and a list of suspects. All the clues are gleaned from forensic findings in the autopsy, the crime scene investigation, and interviews of witnesses.
In the MBA course, the corporate corpse (or near-corpse) makes its appearance too in the case method. A real company and its woes are dissected to understand the dynamics of decision-making leading to a crisis. The management theories are applied with wild abandon on the facts of the case, often sanitized to exclude back-stabbing, snide second-guessing, and the impact of external forces. These outside factors in real life include family affiliations, favoritism, and political machinations which are considered irrelevant information in an academic exercise… as they are not in real life.
Many opportunities of redemption are surely missed in the frenzy of finger-pointing which follows a failed enterprise. When disaster strikes, executives head for the exits, as from a burning building. This is quickly followed by the search for the culprit much like a murder mystery. In the corporate corpse, the wrong culprit is punished.
The CEO needs to step back and play detective with the “facts of the case.” A meditative pause sets aside the ringing cell phones (even on mute, they still vibrate for attention) and secretaries bursting through the door announcing somebody important waiting outside with fingers flexing for a pointing exercise.
The CEO can be like the coach, and sometimes that’s the role he relishes. (He doesn’t shoot the ball.) A blowout in the first quarter leaving a team behind by 15 points can be an occasion to talk to the players/executives. The adjustments in player rotation and strategy are the results of studying failure, if the game isn’t over yet.
Good leaders are bench strategists who understand the game and how it should be played. A setback, or a series of them, is not the best time to learn and adjust but a time to say one’s prayers. Don’t forget the cheering squad that can erupt in boos for poor executions — even when they’re working from home.
An organization’s stakeholders are not really limited to those who have a real stake in the company’s success. They can refer also to those who are tied to the stake as they burn for their mistakes. This latter category will also be digging in the past for possible escape — somebody else needs to be tied up.
Foresight still requires lessons from the past, though not confined only to that perspective. Other factors need to be considered outside past experiences. This is why organizations sometimes hire outsiders to lead them. They are not burdened by history. No rear view mirror distracts them as they step on the accelerator.
Hindsight may still be useful in avoiding the mistakes of the Past. It takes foresight…. to make new mistakes.
TONY SAMSON is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda