The best way forward? Turn around and look back
A view from Sue Unerman

The best way forward? Turn around and look back

There's an important issue that has been raised by many at the forefront of innovation. The pace of change is naturally becoming even faster. At the Government Digital Service Sprint 15 conference, Martha Lane Fox said that breathlessness wasn't enough to categorise the pace of change to come. "We'll be panting," she said.

The issue is backward compatibility. There’s no guarantees that any new device or technology will facilitate any kind of transfer from the old.

Got pictures that you cherish saved? Better start printing. Wherever they are saved now may easily be redundant in the near future. The cloud won’t last as the storage venue of choice. This is a bit of a pain, isn’t it? Looking backwards would make going forward much better.

For true future progress, developers must do this. Otherwise, as one of the "fathers of the internet" and Google vice-president Vint Cerf says, we will face the onset of the digital dark ages.

Show me a training scheme (and people do that all the time) and I’ll suggest a way it can be improved by building in an element where the trainers stop to listen to how the delegates think the new stuff works from the heritage they know well. Too often, the only focus is on training that gets everyone to forget the old and apply the new. Better than merely learning the new (and often quickly forgetting its application): let the trainees decide how the new will change the old. It will usually stick better and deliver real change faster. I yield to few in my impatience for positive change but, if looking backwards means the changes stick and are real, then it’s crucial.

'Developers must look backwards as well as forward. Otherwise, as Vint Cerf says, we will face the digital dark ages'

Don’t just drive forward – allow backward reflection to deliver real change.

The Fosbury Flop is often cited as a great example of innovation, of thinking outside the box. I first heard of it when a top agency suit was proposing a radical new ad strategy to the client and began with the inspirational clip of Dick Fosbury taking the high jump gold medal at the Olympics in 1968 by going over the bar backwards. I can’t remember the ad that was presented, but I remember the flop.

A new world record was set. Fantastic progress. Yet, in fact, Fosbury was going back to a technique he had developed at high school and was driven to do so by back problems. So he made a great leap forward by going backwards – having been constrained in his previous style of jumping, he then painfully, gradually, made small incremental changes to create another style.

To put your best foot forward, sometimes you’ve got to turn around.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom