haunted by our past, compelled by the future

by mch on October 13, 2008

Businesses change. They grow, they shrink, they adapt, they get pushed around.  The market is influential, personalities intervene, and our organizations and businesses shift with and in spite of the forces around them.

What kind of change is good for you? What kind of change hurts?  What will be a boon or a bust -and how do you know the difference?

Larry Greiner, in his article “Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow” (first printed in 1972 in the Harvard Business Review; it was updated again in 1994) posits that an organization’s development is less determined by outside forces than it is by the organization’s history.  He says:

Historical forces do indeed shape the future growth of organizations. Yet management, in its haste to grow, often overlooks such critical developmental questions as: Where has our organization been? Where is it now? And what do the answers to these questions mean for where we are going? Instead, its gaze is fixed outward toward the environment and the future–as if more precise market projections will provide anew organizational identity.

So what is the place of balance?  If we’re looking to the future and encouraged to set goals- to make plans to capture the prize – how to we recognize the influence our pasts hold on our future?  Two of Greiner’s key recommendations are to know where you are in the developmental sequence and to realize that solutions breed new problems.

The implications of these recommendations are significant: you must know the context within which you’re operating to have a clear sense of what’s going on.  To have a grasp of the context you’re working within, you must understand the circumstances that got you where you are today.  What led you or your business to this place?  What was important at the time of these old decisions?  Have these circumstances changed?   Has your thinking changed?

Similarly, we must understand that a solution at one point in time might become a challenge at another. How can we be flexible and respond to the changes in the marketplace (or in the personalities on staff) to make shifts as needed?  Just because something worked once does not mean it will work again, especially if circumstances and context have changed.

Forward-thinking leaders shape organizations that can grow.  And when they imagine a world in which they are successful and dreaming of accomplishing the impossible, the impossible can come to fruition.  Those same leaders cannot ignore the influences, dynamics, and challenges that lead them to this point of decision making or planning.  In fact, only when those leaders are mindful of the forces around them do their future plans and dreams find traction at all.


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