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  • Tamar Balkin

Reflecting On The Past: A Help Or A Hinderance?


“Too strong to tell you I was sorry Too proud to tell you I was wrong I know that I was blind, and darlin' If I could turn back time If I could find a way”

If I could turn back time by Cher (Click here for the song)


Photo by Dari lli on Unsplash


“We argue that the past is special for human beings because it is regularly, and often principally, the only thing that can determine present social realities such as commitments, entitlements, and obligations”

Mahr and Csibra


Researchers suggest the following approach for exploring the history of an organisation:

  • Learn how and why the company began

  • What was the core focus of the business?

  • How was the customer defined?

  • What were the original product or services and why?

  • Who were the key individuals?

  • What were their areas of expertise?

  • What were the critical values and drivers of behaviour?

  • Know about the purpose of the company: who was it aiming to serve?

  • Define the broader social, economic, and political factors that impacted strategic decision-making over time.

“Historical analyses are applied to organizations with various aims, such as confirming theories, selecting hypotheses, developing our understanding of contemporary organizations or constructing narratives of historical processes”


Consultants will often use a timeline approach to enable current employees to mark their key milestones and to learn about the changes that impacted others. A true understanding of history necessitates a reflection on "intergenerational dilemmas". These are the decisions that necessitated reconciling short-term personal goals with the long-term needs of others.

What are the benefits of discussing the history of your organisation?

  • Understand the rationale behind decisions.

  • Realign with the values and purpose of the organisation.

  • Honouring and celebrating those who came before.

  • Recognition of where things may have strayed.

  • Learn from mistakes.

  • Grow acceptance for present and future changes.

  • A reminder of the long-term implications of decisions.

  • Enables connections to be made between the past and present.

  • Facilitate strategic planning, creativity, and innovation.

Reflecting on the impact of past corporate decisions can also serve as a reminder to present decision-makers that their choices will be remembered by others in the future. When strategic ideas that were forgotten or intentionally disregarded for political motives are rediscovered and analysed, they can regain relevance and inform change. Effective leaders who drive progress, have a firm grasp of their organisation's history and use it to generate competitive advantages that positively affect internal and external stakeholders.


“In business contexts, legacy-building, or behavior designed to craft one’s impact on future generations, often takes the form of working to ensure the long-term viability of an organization, leaving the organization stronger, more productive, and more deeply connected to the shared values of the group’s stakeholders than one found it.”

Fox, Tost, and Wade-Benzoni



Regular readers would know that conceptions of history occur through interpretation. According to researchers, this is a powerful means of influencing decision-making. It is encumbered on the leader when they actively “use” history in change processes, to be mindful not to manipulate and to show respect to current and past leaders. Another potential blind spot for the leader is that their enthusiasm for a new project may be interpreted as disdain for what came before. To minimise the likelihood of this occurrence it is beneficial to make the time to consult with those who came before you. It's crucial to understand what worked, and what didn't, the origin of the idea/strategy, its context and its goals. Though it may seem uncomfortable, approaching the matter with kindness, humility, and respect is an essential and invaluable part of any change program.

Final thoughts:

Demonstrating humility towards the changes being implemented is a vital approach to pay respect to the past. Openly acknowledging the risks taken by others in the past is a way of honouring them. Commemorating an organisation's history establishes a sense of pride in the tradition being continued. It also recognises the efforts of those who made the current change possible by making sacrifices in the past.


"I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance, Never settle for the path of least resistance, Livin' might mean takin' chances, but they're worth takin', I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean, Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens, Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance, And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance. Dance... I hope you dance. I hope you dance... I hope you dance."

I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack (Click here for the song)

---------- Please click here if you would like to read my past blogs.

References: more available on request Brunninge, O. (2009) Using history in organizations: How managers make purposeful reference to history in strategy processes. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 22(1): 8-26 Brunninge, O. (2009). Using history in organizations. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 22(1), pp.8–26. doi: Fox, M., Tost, L.P. and Wade-Benzoni, K.A. (2010). The Legacy Motive: A Catalyst for Sustainable Decision Making in Organizations. Business Ethics Quarterly, 20(2), pp.153–185. doi: Wade-Benzoni, K.A. and Tost, L.P. (2009). The Egoism and Altruism of Intergenerational Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(3), pp.165–193. doi: Mahr, J.B. and Csibra, G. (2020). Witnessing, Remembering, and Testifying: Why the Past Is Special for Human Beings. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(2), pp.428–443. doi:


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