Past, present and future

What makes organisations successful and profitable in the long run? And is the answer the Holy Grail of management? There are two ways of handling this. First, there is the traditional approach, which is to look at what has not been successful and seek to learn from mistakes, or to look at those who are successful and follow what they do well. Second is to look at this on a more philosophical basis.

The latter approach was taken in Singapore a few years ago when the government launched an innovation programme to build people’s lateral thinking skills. Lim Siong Guan, then head of the civil service, said that the three main reasons for the failure of institutions and even whole societies, were a failure to learn from the past, a failure to adapt to the present and a failure to anticipate the future. It is the last that is the worst.

Every partner awayday or retreat should start by asking each of these questions in turn. How can you learn from the past? How do you and your fellow partners review what is happening in your business and your competitors’ businesses and learn from the mistakes? What do you do to ensure you benefit from the lessons learnt, having invested time and money in projects and approaches that did not work? You need to build in a reflective process that captures key points and feeds into future projects.

How should you adapt to the present? How do you draw upon the experiences of past successes and failures to inform how to handle today’s challenges and opportunities? Are you deliberately looking for ways to improve, or just tinkering with the ideas? How disciplined and organised are you?
And how do you anticipate the future? Those organisations and individuals that lead the way have a strong sense of the future. None of us can be fortune-tellers, but some people seem to have a greater capacity to be entrepreneurial, to be lateral thinkers, to be part of an organisation’s think-tank. If your competitors are looking at innovative and creative ways to deliver value-added professional services, what are you doing to improve your approaches? When recruiting new leaders, how do you ensure they have the talents and skills that enable them to drive your business forward?
It can be very powerful to support and develop your people, regardless of their innate skills and aptitudes, by developing management programmes that encourage and reward the generation of ideas. Develop methods for harvesting and expanding those ideas and have ways of evaluating and crystallising those ideas. Offer methods of sharing and communicating new ideas and provide a framework for implementing ideas.

If, as preparation for your next partner awayday or retreat, you give each person a single sheet overview of the three big questions and ask them to come prepared to discuss them in relation to their area of responsibility, you will have a much more illuminating time. You may discover that there is already a wealth of insights and ideas bubbling and brewing, or that there is a dearth of awareness. Both results are valuable, but your response and actions will be different.

Patricia Wheatley Burt is a coach on peak performance management in the professional and service sectors at leadership and people management specialist Trafalgar