My innovation friend, Tom Lilley, perceptively observed that ‘many of the liminal zones I encounter on the job are actually temporal – the present and future rubbing up against the weight of the past’. Tom noted the organisational archives/trophy cabinets lined with artefacts and photos that embody the company’s history. At one extreme, this might be a plane suspended from a ceiling; or a full-sized running track. I relished the observation and it set me thinking. Such displays create an uncertain temporal zone that blends past and present – sometimes in a complementary and mutually illuminating way; sometimes with a jarring discordance worthy of the most free of free jazz improvisations.
David Boje, with reference to Walmart, identifies the dilemma with the strategic journey narrative: how ‘to appear to be the same over time, and to appear to be different, reflecting shifts in innovation and the environment’ (Boje, 2008: 10). The relationship between past and present is uneasy and infected with suspicion. It is also rarely stable.
I recall visiting a financial services company HQ with a striking museum in its foyer: information boards, old signs, uniforms and photographs that charted its 200 year plus history. To an employee it symbolised an epic narrative: adversity countered, challenges surmounted, growth assured. To a business partner or customer, it symbolised reassurance, solidity, longevity: your money, your relationship is safe with us.
I was intrigued to learn that several years previously when the company underwent a substantial rebrand, the incoming CEO had removed the display. The decision reflected the neat ambiguity in Tom’s phrase – the ‘weight of the past’. Rather than representing comforting solidity, here weight signified a burden – a rock roughly bound to the chest dragging you to the bottom of the competitive lake.
Perhaps it also shows how organisations try to suppress the narratives that fail to fit with the current conception of self. The rebrand – even encompassing a new name and logo – was designed to exorcise these stories from the past. But as ghosts may often resist exorcism, so do stories. They may be driven to the shadows yet they show remarkable resilience and fortitude. Locally, the company is still referred to by its old name – the company’s story is also one of the region and so even more difficult to erase.
So why the decision to reinstate the display? You might point to a fresh CEO with a different view of the past. Or, you might assume that several years after the rebrand, the old stories no longer had the power to influence; they had been subsumed by new stories of modernity and the future. Or, perhaps, it was accepted that the shadows could never be dispelled nor the stories fully exorcised and so it was only fit they should be allowed back in over the threshold.
Someone else talking about time, once observed
‘Far away, across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell’
So maybe this was one softly spoken magic spell that could never be broken.
Boje, D. (2008), Storytelling Organizations. London: Sage