The Risk of Institutional Memory Loss

One of the greatest struggles that every organization goes through is the battle against institutional memory loss. The loss is gradual. It begins before you are even aware that it has begun. And if left unchecked, the loss will gain momentum, and usually ends with a terrible fall, at great cost. History gets repeated. Mistakes are remade. Waste is magnified. And the saddest part of it all is that it was all right there, in plain sight, with lessons just begging to be noticed and retained. For many organizations, this can become a battle between healthy growth or the death spiral.

Why do so many fall prey to institutional memory loss? I am not an expert in this area, but I have some suspicions.

Perhaps this is so because human beings are wired to move on quickly to the next thing, especially when the lessons of the past are painful. It is entirely human to want to put the pain of the immediate past in the rear view mirror. Or perhaps it is just more fun to think about what is ahead rather than what is behind.

Perhaps this is one of the side effects of “confident leadership,” which often looks like single-minded, forward-looking “purpose.” And this single-mindedness can cause a blindness that can border on arrogance, and deliberate forward movement, almost to the exclusion of noticing anything along the way. This sort of single-minded vision can have its benefits, for sure… but it is a double-edged sword, with both edges equally sharp.  

Or perhaps our efforts to simplify things in a complex and noisy world (something that my colleagues and I focus on with our clients on a daily basis) might occasionally lead to oversimplification in pursuit of “clear analysis.” No one loves to reduce things down to “one thing” more than me, but the reality is that most things will never, and should never, be reduced to one thing only. Reality almost always consists of a combination of factors, and various decisions made on top of decisions on top of decisions that lead to a cascade effect. Simple causation, while nice and neat and clean, rarely leads to full understanding of the truth.

But while the cause of an organization’s loss of institutional knowledge is varied, the risk and cost of the loss is not.

Great leaders need to be thinking about creating cultures that are able to capture the lessons of the past, as part of their normal course of business. It does not have to be a “drop everything and do a deep dive” effort. It can be a part of the normal conversation, a standing agenda item in periodic meetings, and something that is always on the table as a point of discussion.

It also doesn’t need to be a daily, weekly or even monthly conversation. It probably shouldn’t be too frequent. The effort to create institutional memory does not have to be constant. But it does have to be consistent. And the nature and frequency of the conversation starts with company leadership. Ultimately this is a question of culture, and behaviors, both of which need to start at the top. 

As you can probably tell, this has been on my mind an enormous amount lately, because the lessons learned over the last 18 months have been immense for every organization, including mine. Even within our comparatively (to our corporate clients) tiny Latimer organization, we have lived a lifetime of professional experiences in a short period of time. The highs and the lows, and the corresponding excruciating pains and overwhelming joys, are real… and dramatic. So, as part of my role as the leader of this organization, I have been looking around, doing a lot of reflecting, and capturing lots of notes, to make sure we have learned from our own experiences.

How have I been doing this? By asking lots of questions.

What did we do well over the last 18 months? 

What did we do poorly over the last 18 months?

What decisions did we get right? Or wrong?

Where were we smart, and where were we lucky?

We have to be consistent in our review of these kinds of questions. We have to be ready for answers that might not be comfortable. We have to create the culture where people feel empowered to give honest answers. And we have to always realize that good institutional memory is not always about the hand wringing over mistakes, and the pain of capturing those mistakes. Capturing the reasons why something went well is just as important as capturing the reasons why something went poorly. Good business leadership, just like good parenting, is just as much about reinforcing the good as it is about correcting the not so good.

Corporations, the good ones anyway, do a good job thinking about, planning for and managing risk. The bad ones don’t. But even the best risk managers frequently underestimate the overwhelming cost of failing to notice, learn from and remember the lessons of our own past.

Leaders… don’t let that be you.

Have a great day.


Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.