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20 February 2019
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History is not bunk

23 February 2015  

Life is not simple because very few things that we have to deal with are as easy as ‘yes’ or ‘no’, blogs John Bowen.

In most cases there are a range of factors that have to be taken into account and these will include possible outcomes of each option before us, the consequences of our actions, and not only in terms of how these affect us, but also how they affect others.

If that is the case in our personal lives it gets even more complex at work. “I see young Smith has exceeded his trading limits.” “Yes, but he is a talented lad. I’m sure he’ll recover his position. It’s not going to bring the bank down, is it?”

Making mistakes is a good way to learn and it always will be and always should be, but not where there is clear evidence that something is not going to work. Henry Ford is alleged to have said that history is bunk, but another observation – made by Hegel and George Bernard Shaw among others – is that the only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

Think about those two phrases a little because in one we are suggesting that we can forget historical data and in the other saying that even when we do consider it we don’t learn from it.

In reality they both have some truth because we should always be looking to the future, and that is perhaps what Mr Ford meant as he was one of those characters who, while not everyone would agree with his views and his methods, would have to agree that he moved the world along. His Model T changed the world, but in many ways it was a real dead-end as a car; the way that many of its primary controls worked was not adopted by the industry that the car created and most of the benefits that the industry did take forward were instead in the way that the car was produced. Henry’s car and the way that he made it taught the world as much through failures as from success.

We all get taught stuff from the cradle. We take the things that are explained to us and we blend that with our experience of the world to build our knowledge. Some things we need both the explanation and the experience for; being told not to touch a hot stove is not the same thing as getting burned, but we start to learn that some things that we are told are likely to be true and we find evidence that shows them to be so without our having to experience them. I don’t need to be bitten by a venomous snake to know that it is a bad idea, for example.

In business we have to be prepared to try things if we are to move forward, and if we don’t move forward we will probably fail, so there is impetus for us to try things. There will usually be someone who says: “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”

That is fair enough, but should you not try again now? If nothing else, the circumstances will have changed since the previous attempt so it might be worth considering why the failure happened.

That is why I like to document my project files with as much information as I can. Why did we do it, what was our thinking, on what data did we base our calculations, what were the success criteria and by how much did we fail? All of those things may have been clear then, but if they are not documented at the time, then it can be very hard to evaluate any of it from memory a year or more later. And what if you have moved on and it is some other poor soul trying to work it out?

Such documentation is historical, but it is not bunk – it is very useful – and being able to look into the thought patterns of an earlier failed project to see whether or not you could do it better makes sense.

Life may not be easy, but keeping good records can make it easier for you in the future and you will be helping others too.

John Bowen is an FM consultant