They say the Pacific Ocean has no memory. What about us? What would we be if we deliberately forgot our entire personal history? To some extent, our past is a vital source of knowledge. Without it, we would make some terrible mistakes again. It fits with George Santayana’s famous line:

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

At the same time, however, forgetting your personal history would free you from the moors of tradition and identity. You might forget all the wisdom accumulated through experience, but you would also forget “the way we do things”. This could have some surprising benefit.

No Memory

There is a fascinating story of a 47-year-old man named Scott Bolzan who woke up one autumn morning, went about his regular day, and found something strange happening that particular evening.

As the sun started to descend on the horizon, night taking over the town, people emerged from their homes dressed in strange garments. There was no announcement, no advertisement for this behavior. People just started coming out of their houses dressed as they had never been dressed before.

Some wore whole bed sheets over their bodies; others wore masks. A few had gaudy makeup painted on their face in garish colors. Every person stepping out of their home wore some strange outfit. They came out in droves. Gangs of hooligans, it seemed. And they started moving from door to door in the neighborhood, wandering around with empty stacks in their hands.

There were hardly any adults around. These denizens were all children. And when they came to Bolzan’s door, they yelled something very foreign to him: “Trick or Treat”.

This was Halloween, of course. But Scott Bolzan had no idea what Halloween was. A few months prior, he had suffered a devastating accident at work resulting in severe retrograde amnesia. This was the first Halloween of his new life, a life devoid of any previous memories. And as was the case with many new experiences, Bolzan spoke to great detail of how each of these “normal” aspects of life filled him with wonder and awe.

It sounds inspiring. And I certainly do not, in any way, glorify amnesia; I do, however, see the limitations that memory can impose. It would be terrific for each of us to experience a newness, a freshness, to the “normal” aspects of life. Mindfulness practice appears to help. So I welcome anything that gets us to that state without losing one’s entire memory and historical context.

The Value of History

I studied the predictive power of history with an article written during the study of Nassim Taleb’s book, Fooled By Randomness. Taleb has much to say on the topic, much of which is a bit nuanced. One simple bit of wisdom is that Taleb argues the oldest values and concepts and ideas are the best ones for us to use. For the fact that they have stood the test of time. I like this idea a lot. And Taleb formalizes much of this in his later books, culminating in the aphorisms of The Bed of Procrustes.

The limitations are still real, however. Outside the broad, principled proofs of history, the specifics of cause-and-effect have very little value to Taleb or to this week’s featured author, Robert Greene.

In his book The 33 Strategies of War, he makes the point: DO NOT FIGHT THE LAST WAR. He goes on to explain:

The last war you fought is a danger, even if you won it. It is fresh in your mind. If you were victorious, you will tend to repeat the strategies you just used, for success makes us lazy and complacent. If you lost, you may be skittish and indecisive.

In other words, don’t value your experience and track record too much.

In fact, don’t value it at all. I can tell you firsthand that no one cares about it. At all. It lends credibility but credibility, itself, also seems to be overrated. I wish it weren’t the case but “What have you done for me lately?” is the mantra of modernity.

Anyway, this isn’t just about your stellar career and past wins. This is about past losses, too. I once featured an article on how manager’s fixate too much on failure. We talk about failure far more than we should today. And in the basketball world, there is a fantastic device that Duke coach Mike Krzyzweski uses to break that tendency. He and his team regularly use the phrase “Next play” to keep themselves in the present moment and situation of the game.

Missed a shot? Next play. Made a shot? Next play! This means that you don’t react to the individual moment, be it the microfailure or microsuccess. You treat those moments as they are: small. And already done. This is a bit like mindfulness again, a fabulous effort to stay in the moment. As Greene writes:

Great strategists do not act according to preconceived ideas; they respond to the moment, like children. Their minds are always moving, and they are always excited and curious. They quickly forget the past–the present is much too interesting.

That, I think, is what “next play” is really about. Staying in the present because it is far more interesting.

This has deep implications for the typical way we do things. As you can see, “next play” does not ponder scoreboards or past mistakes or future implications. There is a game to be played, here and now, and so we’ll play it. Specifically, we’ll play this next play. With zero thought to the last play or the one that comes next after this one.  

In the context of a basketball game, I love the simplicity. As far as long-term strategy goes, is anything else really necessary? The offense always tries to score. The defense always tries to prevent a score. React to what you see. Trust your fundamentals and team playstyle. You can reassess those things later if you have to.

Can tendencies be discovered in the game? Capitalized for advantage? Of course! That’s what the coach is there to do. And Mike Kryzweski knows a thing or two about that. He knows, also, that he can’t be bound to whatever tendency he thinks might be there. Taleb and Greene would both admonish him for that.

Planning Versus Plans

Okay, so what does that have to do with the rest of us? This present-minded strategic mindset manifests in the software development world in ways I really love. One simple example is in the discussion of “waterfall” versus “agile” paradigms.  

I’ve come to really appreciate the deep risk involved in software development. Unlike, say, building construction, there is no deeply-ingrained set of plans that everyone can understand and sign-off on prior to building. No client can easily “see” the deep architecture of a code base the way they can see the architecture of a new tenant finish for a retail store. And as software development moves from one stage to the next, constraints form even as client needs change. That’s true in all forms of project management but the challenges are greater in software.  

“Waterfall” refers to the original method for dealing with these challenges with heavily-scripted, rigid schedules of pre-defined work to be done at every stage. Pre-planning is critical. Controls (specific tools) are mandatory. The cycle of research, writing, testing, and deployment occurs in one long arc. Much like a physical building is constructed in one long, heavily-planned, heavily-controlled sequence. It’s quite the marathon.

Agile doesn’t follow this same long arc. It involves the same work and the same distance (arguably) but instead of a single marathon, the cycles of work occur repeatedly in sprints. Every stage is the equivalent of a basketball play and you stay present in that moment, working in that context, incrementally muddling through in a way that is focused more on delivering the outcome rather than adhering to the plan.

Waterfall is rigid and, without sounding grandiose, attempts to bend reality to its will, its pre-ordained plan. This requires a lot of resources and is probably necessary in large groups and organizations.

Agile is adaptive and bends itself to reality. It’s “Next play” all the way. Or as Greene suggests, it does not act on preconceived notions and remains responsive to the moment while adhering to the larger goal.

This has high applicability to just about any work. Here are two great articles to better explain and examine the dichotomy: one by Sarah Elson and another by Scott Harper.

The U.S. Army provides another example of how this present-minded strategy matters in their use of what’s termed “adaptive leadership”. If one could take agile software development methods and apply them to the battlefield, I suppose this is what you would get. In the Army’s example, adaptation occurs through three key activities that are practiced in regular, quick, iterative cycles. As cited from this article by Lt. Col. William J. Cojocar, PhD, U.S. Army:

  1. Observing events and patterns.
  2. Interpreting them.
  3. Designing interventions based on observations.

That doesn’t seem very profound, does it? Nor does Agile development practice. Not on the surface, anyway. But I can say with some experience that it is absolutely exhausting, completely different than our typical ways of thinking and working, and wildly invigorating.

No Prediction. No Identity.

Mostly because these methods do two things: they break our usual reliance on historical prediction and break our narrow identity that we form with old traditions and cultures and “the way we do things around here”. As stated at the start, Greene recognizes that your past successes are just that: the past. The more we rely on those old tools to fix new problems, especially the tools others created, the more likely we are to find ourselves failing tremendously.

I’m reminded of Steve Jobs and the work he did on Apple’s first foray into mobile phone technology with the Motorola Rokr E1. Long story short, this device is a prime example of mimicking current trends in a safe bet to achieve new profits. It’s a bit embarrassing to consider in hindsight and Jobs apparently disliked everything about the effort. For good reason, it turns out.

The Motorola Rokr E1. Image by Ged Carroll from Wikipedia

Yet, we should recognize that at that moment, despite the future outcome, the decision to launch this product made a lot of sense. From a rational standpoint, the Motorola Rokr E1 represented a continuation of the best practices at the time and included a familiar design that people could understand. Meanwhile, it introduced the killer app: iTunes.

What more could you want? If you loved your iPod but wanted to avoid carrying two devices at one time, the Motorola Rokr E1 solved your problems by delivering your iPod experience in a phone you already know you need! What’s not to love?

Everything, it seems. There are a lot of reasons Jobs and countless customers disliked the product. But core to the story, I think, is the adherence to simple trends in the technology (this is how we always do phones) and the conventions (we know what people want and this is it).

The Rokr was built in the interest of maximizing the probability for success based on a strong near-term historical fact pattern of consumer interest. I think Jobs hated seeing something built from such a rationale.

The Rokr continued a design and functional identity that was true to all Motorola phones of the time. Which is another reason Jobs hated it.

So I leave this last note from Greene about what we should fight the past. Not only for better project planning, better basketball strategy, better military doctrine, adaptation, agility, and mindfulness. For innovation, too. In every front.   

Be brutal with the past, with tradition, with the old ways. Declare war on sacred cows and voices of convention in your own head.

That is the seed of innovation, right? That is how the future is realized—here in the present moment. As another innovator, Alan Kay, said:

The best way to predict the future is to create it.


Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash