Leadership Perspectives

To make things happen, focus on the future, not the past

June 26, 2012

Most of the conversations that people have, especially when they are trying to get things done, seem to be about things that have happened in the past.  That’s ironic since nothing gets done in the past.  If you want to get things done, you have to talk about the future and the possibilities that exist there.

Propensity to talk about the past.  Folks do it at all levels of the organization.  They get together to talk about how to implement a new plan or how to bring a new product to market and they end up depressing their own creativity (and spirits) by focusing on extended discourse about all the failures of the past.

Sometimes, the propensity to talk about the past is more subtle.  The conversation sounds like it is about the present, when in reality it is about the past up until now.  Statements that start with “we’ve always …” or “we don’t have …” are really statements about what we’ve always done in the past up until now or what we’ve not had in the past up until now.

I caught myself focusing on the past recently, when the resignation of a key leader provided an organization that I belong to with the opportunity to retool to go in new and more productive directions.  Initially, I found myself focusing on the mistakes that I did not want the organization to repeat.  Fortunately, I caught myself and was able to re-frame my thoughts in terms of what I did want the organization to do going forward.

Re-framing the past for the future.  Confucius reputedly said “Study the past if you would divine the future.”  It is true that there are lessons to be learned from the past.  I am reminded of this by at least one person every time I speak to leaders about focusing on the future in their conversations.

The problem is that we get stuck talking about the past and don’t get to the part where we make things different in the future.  To avoid that, I’m suggesting that we re-frame our concerns about the past as possibilities for the future.

  • Instead of “The meetings always start late because the ops team is never ready,” think in terms of “We need the ops team to get ready so we can start on time.”
  • Simply restating “We can’t decrease delivery time because our process is too cumbersome” as “To decrease delivery time, we must find a way to streamline our processes” creates a new possibility.
  • “We just don’t hold people accountable” becomes future-oriented and actionable when stated as “Going forward, let’s make agreements to hold one another accountable.”

When we focus on the past, we get stuck there.  When we learn from the past to make the future better, we re-frame our past concerns as future possibilities.

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