Hindsight cannot lead to foresight, but neither is history bunk

September 26, 2006

If you look at most companies and government agencies (and nearly all management textbooks) they assume that a study of the past will enable them to set targets or create processes that will either prevent the repetition of past failure, or produce some designed and ideal future state. Now for highly structured and stable environments this may be true. But for a complex system with high levels of uncertainty it is dangerous. There is a wonderful quote from Robert M. Pirsig.seminal 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which I use to illustrate this:

Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go

Now most of our methods, in particular those derived from cases assume the opposite. They create best practice models based on a study of what did several organisations did, then propose that other organisations should imitate said best practice. This is bad enough in Industry, but is more dangerous in Government.

Foresight is achieved not through analysis, but through safe-fail actions or probes that make what is possible more visible; we can then reinforce what is good, disrupt what is bad. This issue of shifting from a fail-safe to safe-fail approaches is (I think) critical to survival for any organisation. The problem is that we only focus on evidence and attempt to target people on outcomes then in effect we assume that hindsight can lead to foresight. Hindsight, or history is of course vital for learning (as Pirsig says) and gaining perspective. Patton was a successful military commander as least in part because he was a military historian. But he did not repeat history, he blended its multiple patterns to create an adaptive and resilience approach to warfare. I think we need to shift our concept of evidence to include experiment and critically move from focus on outcome to impact, a subject to which I will return tomorrow.

To ignore the lessons of history is foolish, but to assume that history can give you a recipe for the future is not just sad, it is plain bloody dangerous. Hindsight informs, but can not determine foresight. Blending the two is insightful and inventive.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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