The Past is Always Relevant

“Things change so fast these days, the past feels irrelevant,” someone recently said to me. My reply: Some people are uncomfortable with the word “history.” Try substituting the word “knowledge” or “reputation” instead. Or think of history as a way to measure your achievements. That’s especially vital when our work product isn’t always tangible. What gets measured gets managed, as Peter Drucker wrote.

How does this work in the real world? One example: I wrote the history of a publicly held energy company for its 100-year anniversary. Early on, one of my interviewees, a new manager, actually said: “We’ve gotta be more innovative around here. More like Enron!” A few months later Enron self-destructed, and rolling blackouts were hitting California. Suddenly it wasn’t so unfashionable for this company to be measurably reliable in terms of operations. And suddenly their “widows and orphans” stock, which had a century-long record of paying dividends, seemed newly relevant.

In fact, the company made its financial stability and scandal-free history a subtle theme in a year-long anniversary campaign. They wove their uninterrupted-dividends message into branding throughout subsequent economic downturns. And yes, they have innovated in many ways as well. These messages still pack a punch … in About Us pages, presentations to stock analysts, and even the TV ads I see in NY-metro area media.