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Looking Back In Order to Move Forward?

Numerous organizations recognize the important interplay between history and the living culture of an organization.

BMW has an official museum dedicated to its “living history.” The company’s website states, “BMW does not just stand by its history, but deliberately preserves it as a vital element of its identity.”

American Airlines also has a museum and can trace its history back over 80 years. The airline continually and deliberately refers back to its history as an aviation pioneer to create a sense of identity and meaning for its people. Finally, Goldman Sachs recently employed anthropologists to dig into its history and culture to unearth key themes. The financial service company also embeds stories that demonstrate its cultural values throughout the firm’s learning and professional development efforts.

Yesterday I talked about how organizations continually struggle with change. In this blog post I make that case that leaders who connect their change initiatives with their organization’s history are more likely to succeed. I explores the key characteristics of organization history and present a Holistic Model for Organization Change. A quick thank you to Gurneck Bains for his wonderful examples, which I reference above (Bains, 2007).

What is Organization History?

If an organization’s culture is “the way we do things around here”, then an organization’s history is how the way we do things came about. Organization History, which I affectionately label “OHx,” is more formally defined as a narrative that tracks the developmental events of an organization chronologically. Since organizations are social constructs — a creation of someone’s ideas, vision, and beliefs, and depends on the actions of people — OHx changes and grows as the organization develops. Thus OHx may be thought of as a record of an organization’s “age” in its life cycle, or alternatively, its “life story.”

However, while a linear narrative is useful for its simplicity, a more accurate portrayal of an organization’s history is dynamic and complex. An organization will likely have numerous accounts of its history including official and unofficial versions that may conflict. Furthermore, within an organization, one’s individual perspective on its history will be informed by one’s tenure and role.

So how does one sort through all this complexity? Since leadership positions often require taking the most long-term perspective and leaders represent the organization as a whole, it is recommended that, at a minimum, the most senior members or founders of an organization be consulted when investigating OHx. Although everyone’s perspective in an organization may be valid and useful, senior perspectives will likely contain useful information that can help one lead change.

Why is History Important?

An understanding of an organization’s history is important because static, “present-only” views of organizations are limited in helping one understand why an organization succeeded or failed, and why it currently behaves the way it does. Knowing OHx can help an organization in its change efforts towards the future.

Linking the Past with the Present and Future

Most organization change initiatives and theories tend to focus on the link between the present and desired future state. For example, Weisbord (1976) believed organizational diagnosis involved the degree of discrepancy between “what is” and “what ought to be.” Beckhard and Harris (1987) described their organization change model as involving three distinct conditions: “the future state, where the leadership wants the organization to get to; the present state, where the organization is currently; and the transition state, the set of conditions and activities the organization must go through to move from the present to the future” (p.29). Cherniss (1988) argues that organization change will receive more support if the perceived end state is congruent with current organization culture and values.

Collectively, these theorists make the case that getting to the desired future state requires an understanding of the present state. I take no issue with this point of view, except of course, that it neglects to explicitly link the present with the past. I created the illustration below to show OHx both informs the present state and is a product of it.


History’s Impact is Ubiquitous

History traces the trail of choices made by an organization like a decision tree. Upon reflection it becomes clear that these choices ruled many options out, and ruled many options in. This led change theorist and researcher Connie Gersick to state, “The tenacity of initial choices…are most fateful” (p. 16, 1991). An organization’s culture, for example, reflects what’s worked in the past, and influences the current behavior of managers. As I noted in part 1 of this blog, history can impact patterns of employee behavior, policy, the types of people the organization attracts and recruits, and even how decisions are made in crisis. History can also influence an organization’s strategy, which is how the organization configures its resources to capitalize on the opportunities in the environment.

The impact of OHx is ubiquitous, forming a backdrop to all of the organization’s present activities. Part 3 of this blog series will show how history also influences how an organization implements change and whether or not it will be resisted.


Bains, G. (2007). Meaning Inc. London: Profile Books Ltd.

Beckhard, R. & Harris, R. T. (1987). Organizational transitions: Managing complex change (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

Cherniss, C. (1988). Creating a new program in a hostile organizational culture. Presented during annual Academy of Management Conference symposium Problems encountered in planned organizational change. Anaheim, CA: August 9, 1988.

Gersick, C. J. G. (1991). Revolutionary change theories: A multilevel exploration of the punctuated equilibrium paradigm. Academy of Management Review, 16, 10-36.

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


Yaron, nice post!

A couple of things strike me about this discussion of the role of organizational history in the way we approach change. First, our collective understanding of an organizations history says as much about the current culture as it does the past. To this end, we create our history. The components of our past that we choose to celebrate, and on the other hand forget, say as much about who were are (and want to be) in the present as they do about who we once were. Thus, if you want to understand an organization’s culture, look at the stories they tell and the ‘legends’ that remain.

The second thing this article reminds me of is some work I recently came across by Phil Zimbardo. Famous of course for his prison experiments, Zimbardo has more recently turned his attention to the concept of time, and how our “Time perspective” can impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Interestingly he argues that the optimal time perspective is a balance of reflecting on the past, considering the present and imagining the future. Not a million miles away from what you are suggesting with your diagram. Here’s a link to his book if you are interested: http://www.thetimeparadox.com/

You know, Guinness also has a museum about their organizational history in Dublin. You walk up through the displays and then when you get to the top, there is a fabulous bar where they give you a free pint of Guinness with a foam shamrock.

Thank you for your thought-provoking comment Adam. Who knew Zombardo was still ticking? (pun intended). And yes indeed, his work on "Time perspective" appears completely compatible with my POV.

I also love your point Adam what we choose to celebrate says just as much about who we are and want to be, as it does about who we were. Seems particularly relevant as Canada and the USA celebrate their Independence.

Michal, I am now craving a Guinness with a foam shamrock! Sounds tasty. LeaderNation Blogger Joaquin wrote an entry on Guinness Beer and Story-telling that you may be interested in:


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