The future grows out of the past

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. The cards my wife and I exchanged might have had twenty five words of text between them. After nearly forty years together that was plenty. It doesn’t take a lot to invoke history or trigger a memory of a favorite moment.

We take this for granted in relationships. It used to be that we took it for granted within organizations as well. History mattered. Now, it may simply be that I am turning into one of those old men ranting for the kids to get off of his lawn. But one cost of the relentless pursuit of innovation is historical ignorance. Michael Lewis captured it succinctly in the title of his 1999 book, The New New Thing.

Whatever the new idea, where it came from is ignored. No one is much interested in how we got to now. Pick your hot topic; machine learning, cryptocurrency, going to Mars. The focus is toward the future. When we are caught off guard as promises collide with reality, the chattering classes point to the dots we failed to connect. Their presumption is that the relevant picture exists in the now, readily apparent to anyone who simply looks.

Few want to invest the time in building a picture anchored in the interplay of trends and forces over time. To ask how what has come before shapes the landscape of what is possible next. This is the shift in mindset wrapped up in the phrase solving for pattern.