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The Insight Behind Start with the Future and Work Back®

January 3, 2021 • Bruce Weindruch

Bruce Weindruch, Founder & CEO, The History Factory

Thirty years ago, a call from a client provided the epiphany that The History Factory wasn’t really about their history. It was about their future. Since The History Factory helps its clients breathe life into their stories by focusing on transformative moments, here’s the story of one of ours:

 “Our CEO is all about excellence”

The game-changing business book In Search of Excellence was published in 1982. By early 1983, Excellence, as it was called, dominated every discussion about what separates successful companies from the rest of the pack. That’s when the phone rang.

“Do you have any examples of excellent behavior in our archive?” asked a frantic corporate communicator with one of our archival clients. “Our CEO is all about excellence, and he wants examples of our people who did excellent things.” The significance of this first call wasn’t immediately apparent.  But as we were about to see, a strategic sea change in thinking was headed right in our direction.

We founded The History Factory in 1979 just as the economy was sliding in a steep, multiyear recession. Corporate America was restructuring and downsizing en masse. Our first clients came to us to manage their archives out of genuine fear that valuable assets and records might get tossed in the dumpster. They were preserving their heritage and mitigating future risk. All well and good. But there wasn’t much use tailored to their plans for future growth.

The publication of Excellence came just as the US economy, with the back-breaking inflation of the 1970s finally under control, was starting to rebound. And not coincidentally, the stock market started a multidecade bull run. Business had the right tool for the right times. Corporate America was looking ahead.

Pulling history forward

A client at the time, Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio), later acquired by BP, was one of the clients that helped us make the connection with the future. As I was reviewing its archives going back decades, I noticed an interesting pattern. When oil prices were low, it portrayed founder John D. Rockefeller as an intrepid explorer. Tough times required the courage and risk-taking of a prospector. When oil prices were at sustained high levels, J.D. was the consummate marketer. These times emphasized getting finished products to market to benefit the bottom line.

What was Sohio doing? It was pulling its history forward and using it to support future goals. It was not rewriting history. J.D. Rockefeller was both a marketer and an explorer. It was strategically leveraging its history to meet its needs.

Based on this work and related research for a growing number of clients, we came up with Start with the Future and Work Back.® Like the best guiding principles and corporate values, it basically wrote itself, emerging from the authentic needs of our clients.

Thirty years later, even though the technologies and some of the players have changed, this key insight into the importance of curated content couldn’t be more relevant to us and our clients. Today, evolving client needs continue to challenge us to think innovatively about how we can help them more effectively find, access and refresh the examples of things they are doing today to get to the future. However, the fundamental principle of Start with the Future and Work Back remains: The impact of content hinges on use.

You own your history. Put it to good use.



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