Ignoring History Won’t Make it Go Away

CHANGE MATTERSA FEW WEEKS AGO I took part in a workshop session with other coaches and change leaders. It’s always interesting to hear how other people approach organizational change – you never know when you might learn something new – but I found myself disagreeing wholeheartedly with one participant, also a change management consultant.

“I never spend time reviewing an organization’s history,” he said. “That’s just wasted time. I’m here to help them move forward, not dwell on the past.”

While I agree with the last part of his statement – as change management consultants, we’re supposed to be helping companies move forward into a changed environment – I don’t believe that it’s productive to ignore an organization’s history. What organizations can achieve is dependent upon their people, and people are the sum of their experiences, their history – they can’t just reinvent themselves at 9am on an arbitrary Monday morning and pretend their past experiences never happened.

In fact, you wouldn’t want them to:

[bctt tweet=”Much of your employees’ value lies in their past experiences, both at work and in their personal lives. ” via=”no”]

Their education, their life experiences, their relationships with their team members – all of these can be positive assets as you move forward into a change.

At the same time, of course, an organization’s history can sometimes be a hurdle: An ingrained resistance to change, old feuds between key departments, a non-productive attachment to outmoded business processes – all of these things can become obstacles to successful, productive change.

But ignoring those obstacles won’t remove them from the path to change – and in fact you may be missing some key insight that could help your change strategy be more successful with less effort. Here’s an example: You create a change plan and issue edicts to various departments of the organization. The purchasing department and the marketing department have had difficulty working together in the past, but you’ve decided that It’s A New Day for the organization and proceed with your plans, assuming everyone will pull together – you don’t have time to go into that history with them. Except that 3 days before the change is supposed to take effect, you discover that the purchasing department hasn’t released the funds the marketing department needs in order to properly communicate the change, and now you have to delay your change efforts for a month while the mess gets sorted out. The organization loses money every day the project is delayed – and even more important, the change effort loses momentum while everyone waits around.

Now, there’s something to be said for leadership encouraging employees to come to a change strategy with an open mind, and to try not to bring ‘baggage’ into the process. But to pretend that the history of an organization – and its individual employees – doesn’t exist ends up being counterproductive.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it. Two real world examples come to mind.

    I consulted at this one company that was resurrecting a strategy every 5 to 7 years to give it another college try. Historically the strategy has always failed because no one was doing root cause analysis. I made sure this time around it was being done. I had to fight tooth and nail to do that.

    Another example that comes to mind are these kids (and some odd adults) who advocate against fascism by using fascism. This sort of mental gymnastics is exactly what happened in China and Russia before these countries turned all red. But what happened there won’t happen here, right?

  2. To move a company forward requires one to understand where the company is now. More importantly one needs to understand why they are where they are and how they got there. Without that knowledge, a plan to move forward runs the risk of being flawed.

    The past defines the present and the two together lay the foundation for change into the future.

    • Totally agree Ken. Unfortunately, not everyone else does. And often those individuals are in positions of power. I’m curious how do you convince executives of this critical need?

    • You can seldom convince someone of something if they are unwilling to consider varying options and views. Often times the more convinced a “leader” is that he is right, the less likely he is to be so since that trait of considering only his/her opinion as valid is a long standing one. Quite likely the reason the company is in trouble in the first place.

    • Wonderful article Beth and thank you dearly for sharing the comment from this particular participant.

      But that means we need to know the facts. As Chris posits, if we aren’t aware of the history, we’re weakening/risking any successful advancements. I second your assertion too Ken. Well said my friend, well said~

      I wanted to also chime in on responding to your inquiry Beth — if the leader is unwilling to take a good look in the mirror (and accept the fact that we all have blind spots), it’s just about impossible to sustain successful long-term results.

      Far too many leaders misconstrue the power of their leadership as being an ‘ultimate source of control/the buck stops here’ attitude/disposition.

      I would recommend striving to establish a connection and a sound relationship with the leader prior to moving forward. Our clients must meet standards and requirements before we are willing to take them on. This is a great example of why we have this policy in place. If the leader/executive is unwilling to participate in open communication and transparency and will not accept the fact that we’re partners in this change process, we deny/disqualify them as a potential client.

    • I agree Mary, ‘baggage’ is in the eyes of the beholder. That’s why I put it in quotes. Thanks for weighing in!