September 8, 2017

Turning Memory of the Past into a Future Asset

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.

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