Category: The Business Physicist

The Past is Only Good for Learning

“An episode from the past interests us only inasmuch as it becomes an episode of the present wherein our thoughts, actions, and strategies are decided…What interests us is that history be at all times a break, a rupture, to be interrogated only from the perspective of the here and now…“

– Révoltes logiques collective, 1977

Until we figure out how to build a time machine, the fact remains that we can’t change the past.   Working with organizations around the world, I have found that anywhere from 60-80% of time is spent talking about the past. Most of it is the “he said/she said” blame game or “if only I had thought of it then” remorse. The sole productive question to ask in looking back is “What have we learned from the past?” In other words, when we we look at the past, it must be with our true focus on the future.

This rule became powerfully clear to me during an experience I had working with a toy company that supplied kids toys to a global fast food corporation. Immediately after a  deficiency was found in one of the toys, members of the company became mired in a destructive blame game of finger-pointing and passing the buck. It was my prerogative in this case to shift the discussion to a reflective point of view, asking “what are the facts?” and “what have we learned to make sure this won’t happen again?” From this here, the organization’s leadership was able to collaborate on the creation of a dual program of contingency and prevention to make the past’s mistakes operationally impossible moving forward.  Here, as in any business case, the past was useful only for learning how to become a better company.


* Professor Eddy is a characterization of Rob Oberwise.