I love ticking along on the train: the carriage rocking, dappled light flashing across the table as the early autumn sun flickers through the trees. Villages, farms, towns, all passing by as my own little ecosystem remains constant. A slight tugging force as we slow, creaking into the station at Honiton: old brick buildings and weeds growing through the platform. The signal box, redundant now, symbol of a bygone era of steam and cables, bustle and noise.
Further down the line we whip through a derelict station, victim i suspect of Dr Beeching’s Axe in the 1960s, when the system was rationalised. Slashed. Remodelled to make it more suited to the new realities. Many rural stations were cut from the system: abandoned to time and the weather.
Change is written on our landscape: as we pass through farms i see the old tithe barns and granaries, relics of medieval farming practices, i see small farmhouses subsumed into collectives, rusted tractors with open seats swept into obscurity by GPS guided behemoths with air-conditioning and plastic cowling. I see villages with large growths of new, clean, brick built estates sprouting out of them, housing to relieve the pressure as the population grows ever larger and everyone wants a piece of England to call their own.
It’s not just the landscape that charts change over time though: i carry a scar on my hand from when i fell off my chipped and dusty red bike aged five. A deep gash that left it’s trace as a thin white line. I remember the feeling of the back wheel slipping away on the loose gravel and the sight of my palm filling with blood. Our memories too are traces of the past: our rationalised and self vindicating stories layered with flashback images of sights and places long gone.
Culture is expressed in the moment, but shaped by the past. Reputation is forged through consistent action over time: predictability being the key. For organisations, predictability counts too. It’s a foundation of trust.
In itself, trust is ephemeral, hard to define, easy to miss. Fifty years on, Beeching is remembered of all things for his work that decimated the rail network, that isolated rural villages. That’s his reputation, his legacy.
Today, Banks are remembered for decimating the financial system, energy companies are remembered for miss selling contracts door to door, their reputations shredded by actions over time. Trust is missing.
The rail journey is a journey through the past: a past softened by the passing of time. You can make the carriage comfortable, but you can’t obliterate the view. Time softens it, but it’s part of the story. It’s the same for organisations: authenticity comes from acceptance of the past and an active engagement in the present. It’s not about advertising campaigns and denial or evasion: those things are inauthentic. It’s about engagement and social justice, about humility and fairness. About earning trust through predictability, not lurching from crisis to crisis and trying to paint out the mistakes.
The past is not a foreign country: it’s our foundation.
When we look at reforming cultures, when we think about organisational change, we need to think about the legacy and how we engage in conversations with great authenticity. And when it’s all over, we don’t try to whitewash the past. That’s like ignoring the view, and it’s the view that makes the journey worthwhile.