Monday, June 10, 2024

Companies Learning from Their Histories

Fortune's Phil Wahba has written an excellent article titled "From Tide Pods to Coach bags, how Fortune 500 companies use museums of their hits and misses to drive success."  He documents how business leaders have developed company museums and assigned individuals to serve as corporate historians.  Many firms derive great benefit from these efforts to preserve and highlight important facets of their histories.  What are some of the key uses of these company museums?

1.  The museums keep track of substantial failures, enabling the the firms to heed the lessons of those setbacks in the future.  Moreover, sometimes companies can resurrect failed projects, find new uses for old technology, and simply find that the time is now right for something that may have been ahead of its time.  Documenting and highlighting failures, and not just successes, also sends an important message regarding the culture.  Employees come to understand that intelligent failures are acceptable, and even encouraged, because they represent the type of experimentation that can lead to breakthrough innovation. 

2.  The museums enable product developers to tap into past designs for inspiration, as the Wahba article illustrates by pointing out that designers at Coach enjoy looking back at the bags that were fashion hits in previous decades.  

3.  Executives can dig into the artifacts and records to examine how leaders addressed similar challenges in the past.  Wahba writes that Coca-Cola executives dug into records from the 1918 pandemic when the COVID-19 virus swept across the globe in 2020.  They sought to understand how the company responded then, and what lessons might be applicable in the 21st century.  

4.  Perhaps most importantly, these museums enable companies to highlight the values that they hope will endure at the company.  What aspects of the company culture do they want to highlight for current employees?  How can they demonstrate the company's commitment to making life better for customers, and not just producing profits?  The museums have a role in telling the story of the founders and giving employees a sense of the impact that the organization has made on people's lives.  

In short, history matters.  Companies have much to learn from their past, and investing in telling the story of past success and failure can be incredibly valuable.   It's so important to examine the good and the bad, because people learn very effectively when they can compare and contrast success and failure.  

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