History does matter

September 28, 2017

An organisation’s history can often throw a useful light on situations that boards are confronting now, writes governance expert Graeme Nahkies.

Many boards spend an inordinate and unproductive amount of their meeting time pouring over the detail of their organisation’s past. Sometimes they seem to be trying ‘to steer by looking in the rear vision mirror’. Consequently, my colleagues and I are continually exhorting our client boards to commit proportionately more of their time to focus on the future!

We realise, however, there is a danger in this emphasis of diminishing the part that an understanding of an organisation’s history should play in a board’s deliberations. The problem in many respects is not that boards spend too much time on the past. It is that they get absorbed in the financial and operational details of recent organisational performance at the expense of a ‘big picture’ understanding of where the organisation has come from over a longer period of time.

Why is history important?

A sound understanding of the history of an organisation is valuable to new board and staff members alike. Both groups are getting on a ‘moving vehicle’. Every organisation has come from somewhere even though it may now be going ‘someplace else’. Understanding where an organisation has come from is a critical aspect of being able to guide it safely and economically to its future destination.

There is some relevance in the old cliché that ‘those who don’t understand history are destined to repeat it’. In our experience, however, there is a more significant problem than the risk of making the same mistakes all over again. Unless a board’s strategic thinking includes a historical perspective (including an understanding of the context of historical events) it is as if anything occurring before today is of no consequence. Board members or chief executives, who are ignorant of, or in denial about the past, can easily undermine their own efforts.

For example, in an organisation undergoing a major change process (perhaps a merger, or restructuring) it is all too easy to concentrate only on the ‘grand vision’ of the future.

Leadership messages from the board and chief executive designed to boost the attractiveness of the change often do so by being critical of, and running down, the past. In most of these situations, however, the employees and other stakeholders who have to implement the new vision are the same people who were also a significant part of the past. It is hardly going to motivate them to tell them, ad nauseum, that all their past efforts were (in effect) a load of ‘rubbish’.

Without a good understanding of an organisation’s history and the context in which it operated ‘way back when’, a board is also vulnerable to the ‘we tried that and it did not work’ brigade.

Writing it down

It is vital, therefore, that current board members and senior executives have a good understanding of their organisation’s past history and that they readily acknowledge it—especially the good things about it. That history should be written down. Without a written record which has some chance of being reviewed and ‘authorised’ there is more chance that indifferent memories and differing interpretations of what actually happened may cause confusion and conflict among board and staff.

All board and senior staff members should be familiar with key aspects of the organisation’s history. For example:

  • Why was the organisation formed in the first place?
  • What were the founders’ intentions and aspirations?
  • What was driving them?
  • How have their successors’ interpreted and applied that vision?
  • Why was the organisation’s constitution written in that way?
  • What were the circumstances that dictated certain decisions that, from today’s vantage point, seem strange or even ill-conceived?

The answers to these sorts of questions comprise the history which is the foundation on which the future of the organisation is based, whether or not it is accurately recalled and fully understood. If we were just able to take a look back we might be surprised at what is applicable, or what might help explain our current situation.

How to record it

The problem is that recording this history is difficult for many organisations and their boards. Organisations in their early stages tend not to explicitly record their history because they are only just beginning to make it. There is so little history and it is so near in peoples’ memory.

By the time an organisation is up and running there is often little time. Current growth pains and other assorted crises occupy the minds of board and management alike. Its history may be given more consideration once an organisation moves into a comparatively stable, steady-as-she-goes phase but it is even more likely that there will be no attempt to write the organisation’s history until some major historical milestone looms (such as a 25th, a 50th or a centennial anniversary).

By that time it is too late to capture a lot of the really interesting early history. As key historical records and exchanges between people become more electronic (such as email and digital photographs), it will become even more difficult to retrace an organisation’s early steps.

It is worth assessing, before it is too late, just how easy it is for board members and staff members (particularly those who are new) to access your organisation’s history. It is probable that, in most organisations, this history is not accessible. If that is the case, there is a range of possible approaches an organisation might take to begin developing its history.

For example, you may like to declare the value of your history and decide the resources you will commit to a history project, and acknowledge the different forms of history – both recorded and unrecorded – that you already have, such as anecdotes, memories and archives.

You could also ensure the board’s strategic thinking and even its ‘business as usual’ discussions have a historical dimension, and try to identify and celebrate the key milestones in your organisation’s past. Ways of gathering historical information include:

  • developing and maintaining a website to which can be posted artefacts, milestones, anecdotes—a virtual museum
  • producing video clips of the personal recollections of both current and past board and staff members
  • soliciting stories via the internet from those with past associations with the organisation
  • sponsoring social events the purpose of which is to collect appropriate historical material and to interview attendees

Appoint an historian

Perhaps the most important thing an organisation can do is to appoint an honorary (or even a professional) historian. Finding that one person and offering encouragement and support may be all that is needed to document and bring your history to the attention of those in leadership roles. It is likely that they, and the organisation more broadly, will benefit considerably from ready access to an historical perspective.

Graeme Nahkies is Director of Boardworks International. He is one of the regular facilitators at our annual Governance and Investment workshops.

Article originally published in Issue #71 Philanthropy News, August 2017