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People with institutional memory of similar experiences

 “Old timers” are not to be trifled with. Well, they probably can be trifled with. But they should be—must be—sounded out when there is a project bringing change to the organization. People with institutional memory of other (similar) experiences are those old-timers that have seen this all before.

History may not repeat or even rhyme for that matter. But despite flavour-of-the-day management techniques, there are only so many variations on a theme of what can be tried in an organization to better it. Some variation of what your project is intending to do has likely been tried in the past. If it succeeded, you will have no problem because there will be laudatory records of the event and outcome. It may be part of organizational mythology.

On the other hand, if what you’re attempting now has proximate antecedents (i.e., “we tried this before…”), it’s improbable the record of activity will exist in any meaningful way. The Lessons Learned are likely to be sanitized and blame put on long-departed personnel or circumstances beyond anyone’s control. If it was a wholesale failure, there’s a better than even chance it’s been wiped from official records. (In fairness, reasons may not be nefarious. It could be collateral damage resulting from system changes, (executive) personnel changes, or any of the organizational restructurings that have happened between the earlier attempt and now.)

That’s why finding the people that carry institutional memory in their heads is so critical. They can provide insight into earlier episode(s). It could be revealing and provide valuable guidance for your own actions. The one caution is that some people may have an axe to grind or may not fairly represent all perspectives on the story. But, if there is one version, there will be others. Smoke out the institutional memory from those who have lest the official records let you down.


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