Be Proactive: Look to the Past

As we look to begin 2021, how will we approach the problems we are going to face?  Will we be caught off guard, or will we prepare ourselves by taking a moment to realize that most problems, in their essence, are not new.  That we can have a plan. 

How can looking to the past be proactive?

Let’s look at it in reverse.  News, articles, and books written today are produced to sell.  They must be interesting, and to be interesting they need to be something people are thinking about now. 

Here is a virus and a host of public policies – how do we react to them?  Here is a market downturn – how should we react?  Here is a terrorist bombing – what will we do?  The event, the thing, happens first, then we think about it, then we form our plan to deal with it.  This is reactive thinking. 

We try this, we try that, looking for anything that “works”.  In our search we feel inundated with different stories and strategies. I have heard more than one frustrated person say, “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”  Without a map we can easily become lost or, worse yet, convinced the road we’re on is the right one.

Effective reaction requires a map, a map provided by context.

Context provides coherence to our actions and ensures we are not working against ourselves instead of solving the problem.  We, as people trying to do our best, need to bring that context to the problem.   Current events reporting, modern surveys, and the latest updates in our field, will not provide us with context.

Context frames how a problem is similar to others and is the foundation of why we can seek help.  We can find this similarity by reading those who have thought about it before us or lived through something similar.   

Here are some examples.

Waffle House

Waffle House has a proactive plan for hurricanes.  They are so good at this, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created an unofficial “Waffle House Index” to judge Hurricane impact severity.  

How are they able to do it? Recognizing the difference between risk and uncertainty, Waffle House does not treat each storm as a completely new event.

 A completely new event has no comparison. This is uncertainty.  Once a hurricane is plotted, though, risk comes into the picture.  Risk is being able to assign probabilities to events.  It’s how insurance works.  It’s why disaster plans are effective. Waffle House turns what others see as uncertainty into a context of assessing risk. 

The difference between risk and uncertainty can be found in Frank Knight’s “Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit” (1921).  A nearly 100 yr. old book that provides business with an essential difference between what can be planned, and what cannot.

Bar Rescue

In the T.V. show Bar Rescue, Jon Taffer does not look at each bar as totally new and different.  The intro to the show tells us “Running a bar is not just a business; it’s a science.  No one knows more about bar science than Jon Taffer.” 

Seriously, Bar Science?!?!? 

Yes, and I believe it.  Why?

Because in 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.”  Central to this managerial science is calculating the time it takes for employees to do the different parts of their job: A time and motion study. 

Every episode of watching Bar Rescue is like watching a time and motion study in action.  His context is seeing each bar as an opportunity to apply the same method.  His context is also using the principles of a more than 100 yr. old book and theory not to just to make bartenders more efficient, but to create his own entrepreneurial brand, Bar Rescue.  That’s being proactive, and incredibly successful.

Ryan Holiday

Finally, looking to the past is the genius of such current writers as Ryan Holiday.  Holiday draws on the Stoic philosophers to show us how in journaling, meditating, and reading about Great Persons Like Marcus Aurelius, we prepare ourselves for life’s future obstacles.  We place ourselves in a mental frame of mind that understands the recurring nature of human problems, contextualizes them, and assigns them meaning within our broader life. 

He has also built a very successful brand on looking to the past.

Be proactive, look to the past.

#strategy #management

Photo: New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library. (1935). Great Kills, Shelves and stool Retrieved from