The Strategic Power Of Memorial Day

This past weekend was Memorial Day in the U.S. I was reminded of the importance of the past while cruising the Long Island Sound on a boat with my wife, children, and friends. I kept turning the wheel to keep us moving in the right direction, avoiding sandbars and other motor boats.

A great company is like a sleek boat. It navigates toward a clear vision, its hull's shape creating little drag (just as a good strategy creates little competitive resistance), its engine running powerfully and smoothly (just as good execution does), and it has the right amount of fuel and uses it efficiently (just as great companies do with cash). But what keeps this machine from sliding into the rocks is its rudder.

You see, your rudder always points away from your past. It directs your ship in relation to where it has come from. Without understanding your past—your direction and momentum—and without being able to use your past intentionally, you lose control. This is why Memorial Day—and remembering the past—is so important. Now is the perfect time to design your own memorial day.

Successful innovators think strategically about the past—what to remember and what to forget. This helps them shape the future. It tells employees, customers, partners, and investors what to expect, what historical story they are reliving, and thereby how to unify behavior.

When Hewlett-Packard lost its way, it revived the image of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard working in their garage on the company's first inventions. HP leadership felt poor performance in recent years had led the organization to question itself, to lose its connection with its innovative past. By reminding HP people of where they came from and emphasizing the company's history of invention, they helped reawaken an innovative spirit.

A friend of mine owns a multinational pharmaceutical company. They often buy old, inactive brands, and bring them back to life. The formulation is different—sometimes the entire product may be different (a shampoo brand is reinvented as a scalp treatment)—but the history lives on. This is still the brand your mother used to wash your hair.

Spirits and beer companies often do the same. They buy a brand and carve out everything except its history. They move production, change the formula, redesign the bottles. The final product may share no physical commonality with the original. But the history sustains—the beer invented by monks, the oldest vodka in Slovenia—and continues to define the brand.

Thinking strategically about what to remember is important. But so is thinking about what to forget. Before C.K. Prahalad passed away, he introduced an important concept: the "forgetting curve." He argued that we think about ramping our people up the learning curve, but we ignore the equally important forgetting curve. We need to forget old habits and beliefs in order to do something new.

When Samsung wished to set a new strategic course focused on high-quality products, they held a huge bonfire in which they burned past products that were of inferior quality.

At McKinsey, the history we told always began with Marvin Bower, a Harvard-trained lawyer who joined the firm and brought with him the vision of professionalizing the consulting field. We rarely talked about the pre-Bower period. It was almost as if before him the firm did not exist.

There is a famous Zen story about two monks who see a woman having difficulty crossing a stream. The older monk picks her up and carries her across. Then the monks go on their way. After several hours, the younger monk speaks up and says, "Something has been bothering me. You know we are not supposed to touch women, and yet you picked that woman up back there. Why did you do that?" To which the older monk replies, "Yes, I picked up that woman, but I let her down many miles back. You are the one who is still carrying her."

So, if you spent last weekend celebrating Memorial Day, or even if you did not, consider designing a memorial day for your company this week.

1. What parts of your past do you want people to remember?

2. What stories can you tell to elevate this history?

3. What parts of your past do you want people to leave behind?

4. What symbolic gestures can you use to put that past to bed?

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