Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath by Théodore Chassériau, 1855 (Wikimedia Commons - public domain)
"Study the past if you would divine the future."
We're all racing toward the future at the same rate.
No matter what happens, nor when it happens, we'll all experience it at the same time.
We do want to reach certain solutions before our competition, and increasingly as quickly as customers demand it. Which is why so many companies are racing toward digital transformation.
You've probably heard a CEO use this quote to motivate employees to think ahead:
"Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been."
— Wayne Gretzky
Not only is it trite and a cliché, but it's flawed. And we should stop throwing it around so freely.
The problem in business is that the future isn't a sure thing. Futurists are good at flagging big trends, but customers aren't necessarily on the same path. We don't know how things are going to turn out. As the saying goes, "Where's my flying car?"
In Act 1 Scene 3 of Macbeth, the two generals Macbeth and Banquo visit the three witches, who are gifted with the power of foresight. Banquo requests of them:
"If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak, then, to me."
— William Shakespeare
Most of us aren't witches. And none of us has the power to accurately predict what will happen in the future.
However, we do have the power to look into the past, which in turn helps us understand human nature, motivations, and decisions made by leaders who may have been in comparable circumstances.
In 1952, the publishers of the Encyclopedia Britannica put together a collection of works called Great Books of the Western World in a 54-volume set. The idea is that there are certain works in the canon of western culture that deserve exploring. This is referred to as the Great Conversation, or the ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors.
"We want them heard again—not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could. We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us learn to live better now." [Emphasis mine - ed.] ("Preface," The Great Conversation, Great Books of the Western World Vol. 1, p. xii)
The Great Books
This may seem academic or esoteric, but when it comes to business, we're dealing with psychology and behavioral economics. In other words, we need to understand human nature, decision making, persuasion, storytelling, and other related factors that can all be found in such Great Books.
It doesn't matter what your customers have read, because they'll act according to human nature, which is timeless and universal. History is replete with examples.
All we have to do is study the past if we want to predict the future. Are you with me?