What can we learn from hindsight?

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A. R. Samson

Fence Sitter

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2012 book, Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder dismisses the notion of planning for the future based on analyzing the past. Such an approach is what he calls “postdiction.” Clearly, he is biased for its opposite: prediction.

Life is not linear and what happened before will not necessarily happen again even in some modified form.

In a discontinuous world, even “worst case” scenarios based on past disasters do not prepare us for actual risks ahead. Taleb after all previously wrote about the famous “black swan” effect, for the truly unforeseen and catastrophic risks.

Hindsight, or looking back at the hind (posterior) legs, say of a rabbit, may be considered merely academic, as opposed to foresight — looking ahead, with front legs. Still, doesn’t a good driver need both windshield and rear view mirror to maneuver well and able to check who’s gaining on him? Let’s not forget the side mirror for those overtaking motorcycles.

In the murder mystery, the story opens with the discovery of a corpse. From here, our trusty detective looks back and reconstructs the victim’s life and how he died. This leads him to the tangle of motives, activities, and possible suspects. Other insights are gleaned from forensic findings in the autopsy, the crime scene investigation, CCTV footages, and interview of witnesses.

The post-mortem (or “after death”) is a beloved approach in the mystery genre. The autopsy provides many details of how death occurred (trajectory of the knife, choke marks on the neck, dinner residue in the stomach) and even how it might have taken place.

Looking back at what already happened is meant to see how matters can be improved the next time around.

Basketball coaches watch videos of defeats to analyze what went wrong. A blowout in the first quarter leaving a team behind by 15 points can be an occasion to take to task the players responsible for turnovers, weak defensive plays allowing easy points, or poor shooting by the starters. (Why do you keep hoisting the low-percentage perimeter shots?) The adjustments in player rotation and game plan are results of studying failure. And sometimes the lessons are learned, and they work in the next game.

In the MBA case-method approach, the hindsight method is also dominant. The post mortem of the corporate corpse (or near-corpse) provides the points for discussion. A real company and its woes are presented for analysis as a way to understand the dynamics of decision making and priority-setting in a crisis.

Management theories are applied with wild abandon on the facts of the case. The corporate situation however is sanitized to exclude extraneous forces like family affiliations, favoritism, political machinations, and the envy of peers. Such details are considered irrelevant in the academic exercise… but not in real life.

In any planning session, the starting point seems to be hindsight.

The facilitator steps back and plays detective with what happened in the past, perhaps also looking for suspects. The resulting “situation analysis” starts the ball rolling in determining future moves. Then it is a matter of tweaking the game plan to have a better result in the next review period.

Good leaders understand the game and how it should be played. A setback, or a series of them, is seen as a learning experience.

Still, looking back at mistakes may just result in repeating them all over again, with even more dire consequences. The luxury of reviewing in hindsight is that the picture is static. The crisis is over and the decisions have already been made.

In the discontinuous future, the parts are all moving fast. The sense of urgency is routine. Can you enjoy the landscape from a small boat when being chased by an alligator?

An organization’s stakeholders are not really limited to those who have a stake in the company’s success. They can refer also to those who are tied to the stake as they burn for their missed shots. Their roles are too clear in looking back at the past. But can these “stakeholders” play a bigger role in future successes?

An undue obsession on hindsight and what went wrong can overlook what really needs to be done and what to prepare for in the future… especially when the rules of the game have changed.


A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.