– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

20 years old news

There is a saying that nothing is as old as yesterday’s news.

This week I read a newspaper article about much older news. As it seems, these can be quite interesting again. Most people, including me, did not even notice it: one of Germany’s most popular TV news formats – Tagesschau – has been broadcasting its own issues from exactly twenty years ago since 1993. So today you can see the news from May 31st 1989. These newscasts are exactly as they were broadcasted originally, including slips of the tongue and weather forecast. Unfortunately, the time of the broadcast is 3 a.m. in the morning and thus, not very convenient for me.

What has all this to do with strategy? I think a lot. A 20 years old news format is not only entertaining. It is more than a recall of fashion trends, dreadful haircuts and log forgotten events. At the original broadcasting date, all this was brand new information, often still incomplete. Commentators were speculating about potential future effects of latest events. Nobody knew were all this would end. Nobody knew if a particular event would even have any relevant consequence or not.

When we see all this today, we know what happened afterwards. This makes a huge difference. I often write about the importance of thinking about the future for good strategic planning here. The difficult thing is to get predictions of the future right. There are a few early signs, indicators and trends. The first problem is to identify them at all. Secondly, it is hard to derive the correct conclusions from these. In this context, an old newscast is an excellent exercise for thinking about the future. We already know the major events of the next six to twelve months following that newscast. Thus it is much easier to identify early signs of relevance. Did people of that time realise that their latest news were indicators for larger things to come? Did they draw the right conclusions? If not, why? Was it even possible to foresee later events? If we answer these questions by hindsight, we may improve our ability to think about today’s events as early signs for future developments. We might learn that things take unexpected turns more often than we expect. Or we might learn to pay more attention to the little things. At least this exercise will remind us that events don’t always take the most likely development.

We know that the Berlin Wall fell in autumn 1989 and that Germany was reunited in 1990. We also know that Germany experienced and economic boom as a result of this reunification, although the East German economy almost completely broke down. I remember that I was convinced that Germany would not reunite during the next decades even in summer 1989. However, was it possible to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events that followed it already in May or June 1989? Why didn’t I see it? I guess I didn’t see it because these developments had been considered close to impossible for all my life. And yet they came.
On the other hand, today so many companies are caught by surprise by the current economic crisis. Was this crisis less likely than the fall of the Berlin Wall?

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