How to Use Organisational Memory to Encourage Change

Much has been made of the idea that organisational memory inhibits changes that senior managers want to make. They feel plagued by the attitude still clung to by some that “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” And, if truth be told, then there’s no question that that conviction will prevent modifications from being made, no matter how positive they are.

That doesn’t mean, however, that such memories will always prevent you from making the changes that you want to or that if they do, that that is necessarily a bad thing. It could prevent you, for example, from doing something that sounds great on paper, but for very good reasons won’t work in practice.

For instance, let’s say that you want to delegate some of what you do to those that you supervise. It could be that because of the uniqueness of your situation that you can’t do it legally – that there’s something quirky in the law that makes it so; and however illogical it seems, you nevertheless must do it because that responsibility comes by virtue of the position that you hold.

Or how about this? You decide that you want to clear out the clutter. No one ever looks at that stuff anyway. What you don’t know, however, is that there are some early studies among those notebooks, feasibility studies, for example, that go into considerable detail about the consequences of changing the things on your hit-list. If you ignore those few people who remember the value contained in them, then you could be discarding a lot of irreplaceable information that could cost your organisation dear.

One area where organisational memory can prevent meaningful change is in the way senior people think. Nearly everyone, regardless of the positions they hold or the work that they do, prefer to evaluate problems or challenges in a particular way, a way that has always worked for them. They may take a long time to gather the information they think they need before they take a decision. They may do the opposite – go with a gut-feeling, and then make up the rest as they go along. They might form a committee. The list of possibilities is almost endless. The point is that their M.O. – their method-of-operation – will remain the same.

This approach can prevent them from looking at a problem from a different perspective, one that could uncover an opportunity or reveal a serious threat.

For example, if you always start by identifying your limitations, then you’ll only look for solutions that fall within those boundaries. Engineers can do this. They begin with their preferred model, because they’re convinced that it is the “best” of its type. Then they remind themselves of what that model can’t do, and then set about figuring out what’s left – what might be possible. The result is predictable. You know the outcome even before the first prototype is built.

On the other hand, if you only ever think about what it would be like if your budget was 100 times bigger than it is, you may not be able to form an executable plan. Instead, it will be like creating an algorithm that spins out your cash flow predictions until the end of the century. In the end, the numbers will be bigger than your dreams.

If you think that organisational memories are interfering with your plans for change, then at the very least, you need to find out why it has always been done that way. For example, what is it about “the way they’ve always done it” that has made it so persistent? The reason has to be more than because a bunch of old fogeys have been working there for too long. Organisations that have survived for some while must have been doing something right, otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted.

If you don’t take it upon yourself to find out why – to look at things from a different perspective, then you will be guilty of the very thing that you accuse others of.

Who then will be obstructing progress due to memories?

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