Turning Memory of the Past into an Asset for the Future
As both an avid vegetable gardener and someone professionally consumed with organizational transformation, I have reasons to be interested in caterpillars. In my garden, they are an object of complex judgement calls. Left to their own devices, they devastate parsley, dill, tomatoes, cabbage, but they also transform into striking moths and gorgeous butterflies.
Caterpillars are also unsurpassed as cultural metaphors of transformation. In our idealized images of transformation, we are often asked to image what the earthbound caterpillar must give up or lose in order to prepare for a more exalted future as a flying creature. At the level of the organization, this may be a plausible way to think, but firms are made up of people, who may be trained to perform new actions, but who are also creatures of memory and narrative. While it is easier to approach change while thinking only of the future and what the organization will become, people are inevitably connected (even if the connection is negative) to the past—that is, to everything that has happened until now.
Interestingly, new scientific study may suggest that there is greater continuity between the caterpillar and the butterfly or moth the we may have once thought. In a 2008 study at Georgetown University, three biology researchers demonstrated that a caterpillar trained to dislike a particular odor retained their aversion to the same odor even after they became a moth, leading them to ask, “Can a Moth Remember what it Learned as a Caterpillar”. One of the researchers, Martha Weiss, has provides a great explanation in a 2017 TEDx talk, she explains that “some structures are retained and remodeled” in the final stage, the moth or the butterfly.
There’s more. Some of the structures of the final creature actually exist from the very first day of the life of the caterpillar. This is a nice reminder that elements of future adaptation may be present in the current organization and that it may be useful to look inward, as well as outward, for sources and inspiration for change.
Recognizing the inevitability of memory in the midst of a metamorphosis can be turned into a useful instrument. As the leader of a transition you may want to decide what it may be useful to have remembered, either as a competency or as a pivotal way to communicate transition. When I first arrived to lead the World Future Society in 2014 (I left in 2016), a global non-profit founded in 1966, it was fast on its way to being identified as an organization that had been overtaken by and left behind by other, newer organizations.
As I began to lead our transition to a different business model, I also began to find it useful to emphasize the organization’s age as the “first” organization of its kind, which more accurately and also kindly, reminded that WFS was actually the progenitor of ideas and organizations that followed. Age and memory were woven into our understanding of why we were relevant in the present.
Each month, the Catalyst provides a quick list of useful and provocative sources for thinking more deeply and building strong strategic narratives in our institutions, communities and nations. This month:
Book: The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis
Helio Fred Garcia, president of the crisis communications consultancy, the Logos Consulting Group and someone that I have known for over a decade, has written a terrific, detailed primer on how leaders should behave, and how they shouldn’t, in a crisis.
Garcia ventures more deeply than many into the territory of crisis to suggest that many—like those that have befallen BP following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, GM in the wake of years of fatal mechanical failures, and many others--are surface expressions of problems rooted in a firm’s past decisions. Leadership either failed to recognize or confront them at the time, so eventually they emerged in the form of crisis. Garcia’s remedies include emotional strength, deep knowledge of the problem, and the readiness to shift frames from thinking about “I” and “us” to “them” – the victims and stakeholders beyond the leadership. But they also serve as good advice for those seeking to create a foundation for their long term health.
Indeed, those firms that pay deep attention to the external environment and know where they want to situate themselves on it often don’t have crises in the first place. Garcia holds up Pixar, and its co-founder Ed Catmull, as placing “extraordinary value on paying attention to their internal and external surroundings,” which kept them out of some of the troubles that other Silicon Valley companies fell into in the 1980s and ‘90s. In the same way that it can be difficult to quantify successful instances when strategic foresight ‘worked,’ it is also difficult to quantify successful crisis prevention. The success in both cases is simply success itself. And no crisis. One good way to prevent a crisis in your organization might be to pick up The Agony of Decision and absorb its lessons before disaster strikes. You can find the book here.