The past is still here it’s just not evenly distributed

Richard Sage
6 min readJun 28, 2023
Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

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William Gibson is famously quoted as saying

the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed. — William Gibson

For that to be true, I guess the opposite of that would be

the past is still here, it’s just not evenly distributed. — me

From an organisational perspective, what does this mean?

I’ve definitely worked in organisations that have felt like they were working in the past, whether that be structurally or in terms of process or ways of working or management or leadership styles or technology. There are many organisations that feel like they are operating even entirely or partially in the past.

Why does that happen? Because for me, it seems really easy for an organisation not to work in the past. You only have to look outside of your organisation, whether that’s talking to your peers or your friends, reading multiple articles of people talking about new ways of working or reading stuff on your socials. The ability to understand that the way that you’re doing something could be or may be done in a better way, has never been easier.

So if an organisation is stuck in the past, then the next question is why? Why when it’s never been easier to not be stuck in the past? are organisation’s stuck in the past? And I guess there may be many reasons for this, but I think some key ones are down to.

  1. the tyranny of past success is one key element. If something has worked in the past, the Organization still exists, so something must have worked in the past. It may not work in the future, but for now, what worked in the past worked in the past. So when you’re thinking about evolving an Organization, for many organization’s, there’s already a disadvantage. You’re comparing the request for change or the selling of change, which is an unknown by definition against a known quantity.
  2. And related to that, I think, many organisations that live in the past, it’s that difficulty in getting change through. In some organizations, in modern organizations, if you’re talking about change, then you’re talking about experimentation. You’re talking about minimum viable product. And what’s the cheapest, quickest, easiest way to prove or disprove my hypothesis. In a lot of organizations that live in the past, I believe that vernacular doesn’t exist. That vocabulary doesn’t exist. And so change becomes big because of that. It’s not about experimentation. It’s about actually a whole scale shift because the language is not there to describe a scenario in which you would take small calculated risks and learn and evolve from them. So in that scenario, that compounds the tyranny of past success. Because every change now is a significant change that comes with risk and costs.
  3. I think another reason why some organisation’s stay in the past, ultimately comes down to leadership style. I think related to that tyranny of past success is an intransigence that comes from that. I’ve observed organisations that I have worked in/with, that are in the past and when they have had specific changes, at a senior or executive leadership level, it has unblocked that organisation’s ability to change itself, to evolve, to learn. So there must be something there around why do leaders prevent their organisations from learning? And if we’re unkind, we could say it’s about arrogance. It’s about the arrogance and the ego, the inflated ego of the senior leader when they get to a certain level. But I think that’s rarely true and I think it’s probably unfair. I wonder if it’s partly about the tyranny of the past, the tyranny of the success of the past, making it very difficult for people to take risks. And when you don’t have the language to enable you to take small risks, then you become stuck. And I know there’s already been a lot written around this in terms of the innovators’ dilemma, et cetera.

So if you find yourself in an organisation that’s living in the past, what are your options? I guess it depends, doesn’t it? Because you could be working in an organisation that’s living in the past and you might have been there for years. So maybe you’re not aware that the organisation is living in the past? But then I think that comes back to, it’s never, ‘in the history of mankind’, it has never been easier to understand and learn that there might be a better way of doing things.

It’s almost like if you can think that there might be a better way of doing things, someone’s probably already done it and probably already written an article or a blog post about it, and it’s probably already been rewritten and syndicated by other people.

So I think lack of awareness is not a valid argument. So if you are in an Organization that’s living in the past, how do you bring it towards, at least now, if not towards the future? And I think part of the answer to that question is being forensically clear as to why those elements of the Organisation, whether it’s cultural, ways of working, process, customer experience, technology, or leadership, why those elements of the organisation are in the past. And it’s only really by understanding those elements that you can then look to try and address them.

I think there’s probably another blog post where I might try and define the approaches to address those things. I’d be really interested to hear from readers as to what they think the drivers are that keep an organisation in the past.

I guess it’s also interesting to think, the organisation that’s living in the past, at some point, must have been in the present. So what was it about the present? What was so good about that present state, whether it was weeks, years, months, or decades ago? What was it that was so good that left the organisation frozen in that state? Maybe there’s a valid reason. Maybe the organisation that lives in the past is still successful. It’s obviously still working, otherwise there wouldn’t be multiple examples of organisations that exist today that are living in the past.

So is there almost, you know, I talked about the tyranny of the success of the past. Is there a ‘tyranny of the current state’ or a ‘tyranny of the future’? Not every organisation needs to be cutting edge or many organisations only need to be working in an optimum way in the areas that really matter in their marketplace. So maybe it’s unfair to talk about organisations living in the past because actually, for many areas of their organisation, maybe they don’t need to.

But that seems like so much wasted potential. You know, you work in an organisation that still relies on paper-based finance processes. You know, that’s unlikely to help or hinder them succeed in their marketplace, but they’ll be carrying a load of additional costs and a load of additional inefficiencies that they’ll just be carrying around with them, like overlaid in saddlebags. And maybe that’s a way of looking at, that, organisations that have elements of itself working in the past, is that it may not be an existential threat, but it’s just an additional weight to the organisation that at some point, you know, may affect, may affect the organisational health and also affect the health of those people within the organisation. If you are, you know, the poor soul working in the finance department, still pushing paper around, that’s gonna be a pretty shit job. And there’s probably something better you could do, and you probably already know that.

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Richard Sage

CTIO, Executive/Leader Coach, Consultant, Strategist, Architect. Transforming orgs thru Tech & helping Tech Leaders transform orgs https://www.richardsage.com/