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History Rhymes, not Repeats for Leaders

“It is often stated, more as conventional wisdom than verifiable truth, that history repeats itself…History never repeats itself because every historical moment is unique. Nevertheless, the process of history does admit to a poetic quality that more accurately depicts its true character. History rhymes — not repeats — in revealing parallels between the events, actors, and outcomes from different periods. Implicit in this approach is the idea that the subject of history is not only continuity, but also that history is about development and change.” (Fields, 2002, p. 266)

Building on Communications Professor Gary Fields’ eloquent point about the rhyme of history, this blog series dives deep on a topic that is often neglected when leading organization change: the critical role history has for success!

There is a pressing need for greater understanding of organization change efforts. Organizations today continually struggle, adapting to a rapidly changing external environment. By external environment I mean the threats and opportunities posed by events taking place outside an organization. Many leaders go to bed stressed out, not knowing how to contend with technological advances, shifting economic conditions, and strategic advances made by competitors.

“If we don’t adapt by doing X, we’re not going to survive,” leaders worry.

Unfortunately there is reason to worry – many of these change efforts fail, including 75% of mergers and acquisitions (Burke & Biggart, 1997). Although there are many reasons for these failures, and each case is unique, prominent social scientist William Foote Whyte recognized the importance of history in organization change:

“Without historical data, our theories of development and change are bound to be faulty…Successful introduction of change…requires devising a strategy that can be linked with structures and social processes that have deep roots in history” (1984, p.161).

Like a physician getting a patient’s medical history (commonly notated as “Hx”), more leaders and organization change consultants need to recognize that understanding an organization’s history is critical (notated hereafter as “OHx”).

Curiously, the vast majority of organization change authors and theorists – people who give leaders frameworks and advice – have neglected organization history. Of the numerous models used to guide change (e.g., Weisbord, 1976; Peters & Waterman, 1982; Tichy, 1983; Burke & Litwin, 1992; Porras & Robertson, 1992), only one (Nadler-Tushman, 1977) mentions ‘history’ explicitly and recognizes history’s potential impact on patterns of employee behavior, policy, the types of people the organization attracts and recruits, and even how decisions are made in crisis. Occasionally the role of history is acknowledged by authors in specific subsets of the change literature, such as mission and vision statements (Pearce & David, 1987; Collins & Porras, 1996), strategy and culture (Schein, 1991; Porter, 2000), and organizational learning and development (Greiner, 1998).

Perhaps the general neglect of history reflects a cultural bias?

Research has demonstrated that Anglo-Americans are oriented primarily toward the near future, and that economic development is correlated with a future orientation (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961; Hofstede, 2001). It also occurred to me that we may be influenced by a bias in western science towards a mechanistic, analytic approach to change, rather than a holistic, ecological view. Valuing an organization’s history acknowledges the importance of a “contextual” approach, advocated by systems-thinking scientists. They find value in putting the phenomena (in this case organization change) in the context of a larger whole (how the change fits with the organization’s overall development). Regardless of the causes of its relative neglect, the following blog series will make the case that leaders should leverage OHx when leading change.


Burke, W. W., & Biggart, N. W. (1997). Interorganizational relations. In D. Druckman, J. E. Singer, & H. Van Cott (Eds.), Enhancing organizational performance (pp. 120-149). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Burke, W. W., & Litwin, G. H. (1992). A causal model of organizational performance and change. Journal of Management, 18(3), 532-545.

Collins, J. C. & Porras, J. I. (1996). Building your company’s vision. Harvard Business Review, September-October, 65-77.

Fields, G. (2002). Communications and Innovation, to Business Organization and Territory: The Production Networks of Swift Meat Packing and Dell Computer. Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, Working Paper # 149.

Greiner, L. (1998). Evolution and revolution as organizations grow. Harvard Business Review, May-June, 3-11. Updated version of the 1972 HBR article.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. (1st ed. 1980).

Kluckhohn, F. R., & Strodtbeck, F. L. (1961). Variations in value orientations. New York: HarperCollins.

Nadler, D. A., & Tushman, M. L. (1977). A diagnostic model for organization behavior. In J. R. Hackman, E. E. Lawler III, & L. W. Porter (Eds.), Perspectives in behavior in organizations (pp. 85-100). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pearce, J.A. & David, F. (1987). Corporate mission statements: The bottom line. Academy of Management Executive, 1(2), 109-116.

Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H. Jr. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. New York: Harper & Row.

Porras, J. I., & Robertson, P. J. (1992). Organizational development: Theory, practice, and research. In M. D. Dunnette & L. M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, (Vol. 3, 2nd ed., pp719-822). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Porter, M.E. (2000). What is Strategy? HBR On Point. Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

Schein, E.H. (1991). The Role of the Founder in the Creation of Organizational Culture. In Frost, P.J., Moore, L.F., Louis, M.R., Lundberg, C.C., & Martin, J. (Eds.), Reframing organizational culture, (pp. 14-25). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage.

Tichy, N. M. (1983). Managing strategic change: Technical, political, and cultural dynamics. New York: Wiley.

Weisbord, M. R. (1976). Organizational diagnosis: Six places to look for trouble with or without a theory. Group and Organization Studies, 1, 430-447.

Whyte, W. F. (1984). Learning from the Field. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


I love it, Yaron, I can't wait to read the next few posts. As I was reading this entry I was thinking about systems theory and autopoiesis, or the process of self-making living things go through. For open systems, this process of self-making is seemingly a huge part of the history, especially when the systems are made up of people, and the self-making occurs through the varied interactions these people have. In that way, the organization's history is the story of how the organization continually makes itself - that is, autopoiesis.

Thank you for the insightful comment Joaquin. I'll post part 2 of this 4 part series tomorrow.

The concept of autopoiesis appeals to both the geeky-scientist and humanist living within me. I absolutely love it and thank you for introducing it to me/us!

The first thing I did was google the term so I could read more about it. Wikipedia had a great visual example -- remember MC Escher's famous drawing of a hand drawing a hand?


"A good artistic visual expression of autopoiesis is Escher's 'Drawing Hands.' The two complementary hands can draw each other, but one hand cannot draw itself." - John David Garcia

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