I’ve noticed that some leaders struggle to envision what’s possible for their team or their organization and instead stay focused on the current state or dwell in the past. People with this lens are particularly conspicuous in a strategy discussion when you ask questions about what could be, and they respond with what is. Do you have someone on your team whose thinking is always tied to the past? How does it affect your team’s ability to plan for the future?

The Historian and The Futurist

I think about the two ends of the spectrum as the historian and the futurist. Historians make sense of ideas and opportunities by connecting them to what has come before. Futurists are liberated from the reality of the situation and validate ideas and opportunities by hypothesizing about the art of the possible. Spending too much time at either end of the spectrum is a concern. I focus here on the historian because I find them both more prevalent and more challenging. (I just haven’t seen many teams who aren’t able to rein in their futurist when they know that they have to deliver results next quarter.)

How to Spot the Historian on Your Team

Historians live in the concrete world. Their sentences are full of is, are, was, and were. You know you’re dealing with the team historian when you hear these types of statements as the common refrain:

  • We tried that in 2014
  • Remember how it went when we…
  • The competition is way ahead of us
  • But that’s just not who we are as an organization
  • He messed up when we gave him that role last time

You might get aggravated when the historian rebuts every idea about what you might do in the future with a reason why you haven’t done it in the past.

You say, “We could,” and they say “…but we didn’t!”

You say, “It might,” and they say “… but it isn’t!”

You say, “We should,” and they say “… but we haven’t!”

How to Help a Historian Contribute to the Future

There are ways to validate a historian, to make them feel heard and understood, and then to shift them to considering the path forward. After acknowledging their perspective on what is and what was, you can ask questions that draw their attention to what would be, should be, and could be:

  • What would it take to…?
  • What did we learn from that unsuccessful attempt?
  • What opportunities are emerging with these changes in the environment?
  • What strengths do we have that would help us capitalize on…?
  • How could we position him to succeed in that role?

Using the Team

It’s possible that your historian won’t be able to pivot. You might only be able to channel their contribution to helping you understand if and where past experience applies to what you’re imagining for the future. If that’s the case, it’s alright. Get the benefit of their past knowledge and then serve it up to those who can use it to shape the future.

“Thanks Beth. It sounds like the last time we launched this kind of service we didn’t do enough to build partnerships with complementary business in the sector. That meant we never got referrals and couldn’t get traction. That’s important context. Everyone, I’m wondering what adjacent businesses we should be thinking about for this launch. How might we get more partners on board before we launch this time?” 

Sounds Familiar?

Note: If you’re reading this and realizing that YOU are the historian on your team, you can use these techniques on yourself. Allow your skepticism about the future to surface, then ask yourself what it would take to make things different next time.

Teams need people who understand the legacy of the organization and can provide color commentary on experiences of the past. You just can’t afford for the historians to constrain your thinking about what’s possible.

Further Reading

In the mirror: Are you the tortoise or the hare?

How can I be seen as more strategic?

Are you helping or hindering with strategy? A Quiz