Here is a key question for you as a leader:
Are you going to enter 2017 with a freedom to create a new level of performance and results or will you be going in limited by the successes and failures of the past?
If you take a hard look and are brutally honest with yourself, the answer will likely be the latter. If it is, you are in good company – that is the way most leaders go into a new year.
Let’s take a look at the impact, what’s possible when we bring closure to the past and what to do to bring about an opportunity for a new future.
“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
The main impact of being limited by the past – a “good” past or a “bad” past – is that the future is likely to be more of the same. If you look at the trend to date and extrapolate that trend into the future, you will likely end up on a path consistent with the trend line. Your performance has been going up? It will likely continue on that trajectory. Your performance has been flat or going down? It will likely continue on that path.
Why is it this way? Put simply, our actions are consistent with what we see. Most, if not all, of what we see is shaped by views and preconceptions derived from the past. We relate to these largely unseen biases as the way it is and don’t see beyond them. Our actions and behaviors are limited to the confines of these views, and as a consequence, our results consistent with this past.
At this point I’d like to point to a very common pitfall, and one that may seem counterintuitive: There is nothing wrong with perpetuating the past. If you are reading this article, you are almost certainly a successful, accomplished leader. While nearly all of us, if we had the chance, would change some things about the past, all in all the past hasn’t been that bad. We could easily survive a future that is an extrapolation of the past.
What’s the pitfall in this? If you relate to the past like there is something wrong with it, you will undoubtedly limit yourself. You will go into the new year trying to not do the past. This mode of avoiding the past is very different than going into the next year with a freedom to create.
(While it may not be as obvious, trying to “do again” a “good” past can be as constraining as trying to avoid the repeat of a “bad” one.)
When we bring closure to the past, it opens a new possibility for the future
What’s possible if you and I aren’t constrained by the past?
Imagine this: Let’s say you have a past file drawer and a future file drawer. Last night your filing clerk mistakenly filed your past files into your future file drawer. When you open up your future file drawer, what do you see? The past. When you go to work on next year’s budget what’s there is the failure of last year’s budget. When you go to work on a new project what you see is all of the projects that came before.
If you re-file the past files back into the past file drawer, what are you left with in the future file drawer? Nothing. Like a space in which to generate freely. Room to consider what is worthwhile and step out to accomplish what’s most meaningful.
So, how can we bring about this kind of closure?
While simple in principle, bringing about the kind of closure that opens a new future does take rigor and intellectual effort. It is mainly brought about by engaging in questions that illuminate unseen assumptions and foster a new view. These questions can be engaged with on an organizational level as well as a personal one.
Sample questions you can engage in:
- What did you commit to and/or intend to accomplish?
- What was actually accomplished?
- What was not?
- What happened that accomplished or didn’t accomplish that?
- What has power with this question is to answer with the actions that were taken and the actions that weren’t taken
- There can be a tendency to get into explanations and reasons, which are distinct from the actions that were taken and not taken
- What capabilities and capacities did you develop or expand?
- What difficulties did you face?
- In what ways did you and your team extend yourselves?
The aim of the questioning is to be able to see the past in an unvarnished way that leaves you with greater freedom. Another way of saying that is that the past will have as little significance, as little sway, on what’s possible for the future, as what you had for breakfast.
It would be a disservice not to note common pitfalls in taking this approach.
The first and most common pitfall we have already mentioned – relating to the past like it is “wrong” in some way. Equally limiting is relating to the past like it is “right” in some way.
A second pitfall is thinking we can forget the past or protesting that we have to remember it. First, you and I won’t forget the past, so no problem there. What’s possible is to be informed by the past and not constrained by it. A vendor was habitually late on deliveries? Well take that into account in next year’s planning – you can push out your schedule, or find a new way of working with that vendor, or get a different vendor, or – well, you get the idea.
Probably the biggest pitfall is thinking that just because you and I have put the past to rest once, it will never haunt you again. You and I are wired to perpetuate the past. While bringing closure to the past at year end is a very useful exercise, the most successful leaders develop this as an ongoing practice.
I invite you to do some of this work before you sign off for the year. It will leave you more free to create the next year and, as a bonus, will leave you more free to enjoy your time with family and friends. Let us know what happens.
If you would like some support in doing this for yourself and/or your team, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay tuned for the next post. Now you have a new opening in which to create we will look at how to create and bring about a new future that is a step change from the past.