Mindlessly Repeating the Past

In my last post I talked about “casual benchmarking” as one reason leaders make poor decisions.  In their book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton observe that leaders often make poor decisions for a second reason: Doing What (Seems to Have) Worked in the Past.

The old saying, “Nothing predicts future behavior better than past behavior” has particular relevance in organizations. Unfortunately, leaders sometimes import best practices from other companies or industries with the assumption that they will work in their current setting. The problem is that no two organizations are exactly the same. In other words, what we was right for one organization may be wrong for another. So when you do what worked in a past organization in your current environment, very simply, it may not work–in fact, it might be a disaster.

Pfeffer and Sutton warn against mindlessly repeating the past. They offer a series of questions to help us:

  • Are you sure that the practice that you are about to repeat is associated with the past success? Be careful to not confuse success that has occurred in spite of some policy or action with success that has occurred because of that action.
  • Is the new situation–the business, the technology, the customers, the business model, the competitive environment (and I would add the church)–so similar to past situations that what worked in the past will work in the new setting?
  • Why do you think the past practice you intend to use again has been effective?  If you cannot unpack the logic of why things have worked, it is unlikely you will be able to determine whether or not they will work this time.

Question:  Why do leaders gravitate toward what they’ve done in the past? Why do you?