Changing our relationship with the past and future

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11 / 9 / 2014 3.26pm

By Michael Ciszewski 

With an increasing appreciation for the way individuals, groups, and organisations are dynamically interconnected, we are slowly pushing away from linear processes and top-down approaches to working together. We are growing in our acceptance of an orientation that is emergent, unpredictable, and approximate, where we need lenses and tools that adapt more readily to the complexity we have taught ourselves to see. This means there is a lot to pay attention to, and lasting effectiveness requires resisting the seductive call of reductionism and oversimplification. This also moves us in the direction of uncertainty.

When work groups start to understand the unique features of being in a complex environment, their relationship to the past and future shifts, and their perspective on the present moment takes on a new priority. Things that happened previously and actions yet to be taken all fade in importance when compared to what is occurring right now. 

Groups caught in the past spend time looking to affix blame for something that has already happened. They get mired in trying to change something about which they can do nothing, or fantasising about things they should have done differently. The corollary pattern is when people in the group get busy with keeping their heads down so as not to be the one on whom the blame falls. When something goes wrong (or right, for that matter) in a work group, a natural question to ask is, “How did that happen?” While straightforward, this is not the most effective line of enquiry. This question, delivered in the moment of disappointment or dismay, creates a backward-looking orientation. As such, it limits thinking by providing a narrow frame of reference: the attempt to determine the precise causes of the disruption. If the group is indeed in a complex environment, the disruption just experienced is unlikely to happen again in exactly the same way. This makes a backward exploration an unhelpful diversion of time and resources.

Work groups also like to spend time contemplating their future. They envision what they want it to be and then design a sequence that will engineer them to that endpoint. And then, despite the analysis, despite carefully assembled steps to get from here to there, steps that will be followed no matter what, the group never gets there. Like dwelling ineffectively on the past, certainty that A will lead to B will lead to C will lead to some yet-to-be-realised future can be misleading and unproductive. Such a stance locks the group into a view of the future that may or may not be valid as the group progresses. In addition, the available choice of steps in the sequence is necessarily limited by what the group currently knows. If the group is indeed in a complex environment, the relationship between cause and effect will be non-linear and temporally distant, so prediction becomes impossible. As a result, being excessively determinate about the actions that will lead to a given outcome can be deceiving and wasteful.

None of this is an argument for disregarding the past and what it has to teach us, nor is it a repudiation of planning or being thoughtful about the future. Planning is useful. It’s what the group does with the plan as it moves through time that makes the difference. Similarly, reflections, reminiscences, and recounting valuable lessons are all healthy conversations about the past. It’s when the group gets stuck reliving former glories, obsessing about what might have been, and trying to find someone to blame for a perceived oversight that it occupies unproductive spaces.

This brings us to the significance of being in what Patricia Shaw has called “the dynamic flow of actual experience”, and what others may refer to as the present moment or the here-and-now. Meg Wheatley, in her book Leadership and the New Science, points out that “The present moment overflows with information about ourselves and our environment. But most of those learnings fly by because we’re preoccupied with our images of how we want the world to be.” Or how we wish it had been. 

Living and working in the present is much harder than focusing on the past or the future. Being in the moment demands exquisite attention, and that kind of attention can lead to being knocked off balance. Despite the cliché that assures us that “now is all we have”, when we are fully in the present, we never know what will happen next, or where the next choice will lead. It is this fundamental uncertainty that makes it so challenging. And so interesting.
One way that groups can start to build the muscle that will help them stay in the moment and regain their balance when they lose it -- and they will lose it -- is to change the questions they ask.

  • PAST: Shift away from “How did that happen?” toward “What do we do now?”
  • FUTURE: “Where do we want to go?” and “What do we want to be?” are beneficial questions that groups should be asking themselves all the time
The shift comes in what the group does with its responses. The direction implied by the answers needs to be held lightly so that the group can remain curious about what is going on and adapt to what just happened. This may not seem like much on paper, but the different orientation is significant when it comes to improving effectiveness in a complex environment.

Author Biography

Over the last 20 years, Michael Ciszewski has built an international OD practice, with experience in the US, UK, Europe, Africa, and Asia. He specialises in helping executive and leadership teams have difficult conversations. Michael is currently based in Washington D.C. and is in the process of opening a London office. He can be reached at

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