Moving forward by looking backward
When learning to drive, my parents gave me a lot of solid info about dealing with what you can’t control about traffic and other folks on the road. Of the many tips, one of the most interesting had to be about the level of attention to put towards driving out of your rear view mirror. Being in enough rear-end accidents might teach this better than other moments, but it came to be a sensible bit of advice to have 1/3 of your attention to that little mirror facing to your rear. The synchronous lesson was to be like a trucker and have your eyes/attention 12–15 seconds ahead of you also. In this way, you aren’t simply driving for your immediate surroundings, but also for the time-spaces you’ve yet to come to. A lower insurance premium, despite a much-higher-than-usual rate of mileage, seems to count this as a lesson well-lived.
In the same way, there are data points, tools, and methods we ought to use in order to inform forward motion for organizations. More than the data of the moment (current stock price, number of daily active users, last quarter’s numbers), it is the data around this which is better utilized in order to shape how we move forward. For example, a group seeks to make sure an investment continues to show signs of improvement, but notices only that less than 5% of the indices are making a return. But, unless they look at the performance of all of the index investments over a period, they will only make bandage-level changes to the performance of the fund. It sounds elementary, but looking backwards just a bit (how often did the entire fund perform like this, when did the specific indexes fail previously, what was the client or market response when items change, etc.), enables an ability to move forward differently.
However, it’s not simply looking backwards. Reference the leading story of this post — using the rear view mirror was only part of understanding the context of the journey. One had to also look further ahead than all but the very best participants on the road. In the case of driving, the best tractor trailer drivers are the road’s best. Not only because they need to see what’s happening well before it does, but also because they manage more weight (physics) than nearly anything else on the road. For them, looking at what their vehicle has to do 15–30sec before it happens isn’t just a matter of driving well, it’s a matter of staying alive and profitable. Same with utilizing data — while not every permutation is knowable, there are often just enough points to be known that one can see a little bit further down the road than normal. And with such vision, adapt their rate of travel towards a better destination.
In a recent project, a case of looking backwards enabled us to take a significant step forward for several smaller projects which were also suffering. We mapped the notable items, and then went backwards to previous year items to see if any patterns were present. Not only were there pattens present, but also a few previously unknown gaps revealed themselves. This enabled a course correction which might have been seen by only one party. Our experimental dashboard elevated it for several stakeholders to see, and a fuller action plan was developed to address it.
This isn’t to say you don’t look out of the front windshield. Only that there’s more to your journey than what’s hitting that glass. Look backwards and forwards, recognize the context of as much as you can, and then your ability to spot and respond to trends will not only be clearer, but you’ll probably clarify others’ ability to run those trends with you.