Why You Need To Selectively Forget Your Own Past

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Reset All Assumptions

We must selectively forget the past. That means not accepting current practices but challenging underlying assumptions, our solutions and mindsets, and the way we tackle the problem.

We need services designed as people need them – not as we have learned to do them.

Bromford Design Principle 1 (Draft)

I’m doing some work at the moment on organisational design principles – which is as good an opportunity as any to stand back and assess our capability for radical thinking.

A lot of the conversations I’ve been party to recently have centered around the need for a strong organisational culture to promote innovation. Indeed – I took part in an innovation assessment that seemed to hold teamwork, co-operation and shared purpose up as a kind of holy grail.

My experience of working with teams is almost exactly the opposite. Innovation often thrives because of diversity and discord. “The idea that will get you fired” is often the best one to explore.

Strong cultures are a positive – but there’s a tipping point. A point where conflicting opinions can get stifled rather than being actively cultivated.

Phrases such as “That’s the way things get done around here” or “That person isn’t really a (insert your company name) sort of person” are early warning signs you’re reaching that point.

I’ve been reading the latest book from VG Govindarajan – a great thinker on innovation and leader of a global initiative to design a $300 House.

In the book VG proposes a simple test to assess the size of the challenge in forgetting the past.  

Here are some of the questions:

  • We primarily promote from within
  • Our culture is homogeneous
  • We have a strong culture
  • Employees have a long tenure
  • We rarely recruit from outside apart from entry level positions
  • When people are recruited from outside, we have strong socialisation methods
  • We have a track record of success
  • We don’t mess with success
  • The senior management team has a long tenure and has also worked primarily in our sector

VG asks us to answer the questions scoring 1-5, with 1 representing ‘strongly disagree’, and 5 representing ‘strongly agree’. The higher the score the bigger the challenge.

I ran my own organisation through this – I’ll be asking other leaders to do the same – and found we score pretty highly.

As VG teaches us – this is not cause to throw our heads into our hands and despair. Rather it’s about surfacing awareness of the weight of our history – and the chains we may need to break to move forward.

A crucial part of this is about resetting our assumptions about why we do what we do, how we do them, and who does them.

It means embracing misfits – not rejecting them from “your” culture.

Contained in our own personal and organisational histories are thousands of assumptions. Assumptions that we live by everyday. 

To truly transform we need to question every one of them.


14 thoughts on “Why You Need To Selectively Forget Your Own Past

  1. In over 40 years of working in a diverse range of companies I can honestly say that I’ve never heard the phrase “that’s the way things get done around here” except in articles like this. I know it exists I’ve just never heard it. My last coach was a Professor of Innovation at The University of Birmingham. ( A strange concept I know ) One of the things she advised was that the best leaders ( at all levels ) spend time in the past present and future. The past gives us roots. The present gives us energy and the future gives is wings. The successful understand how to balance between the three and when to use them.
    Enjoyable and challenging as always Paul. Thanks

    1. Thanks Tom. I think I slightly messed up the phrase. What I meant was “the ways things get done around here” – slightly different but not said as a negative but more as a culture that’s becoming closed to new ideas. You ( and your coach!) are exactly right in suggesting it’s a careful balance between the three.

    1. Cheer Dyfrig – you’re right. Who defines the bits of organisational memory we want to keep? That’s we setting out more explicit principles to aid future service design – it’s almost a cultural audit trail (if you can have such a thing). I’ll share when we start rolling out.

      1. That would be awesome, cheers Paul. That’s something we’d be really interested in as an organisation. We have to audit to the Wellbeing of the Future Generations Act now, where behaviour is vital. Swansea Council have undertaken a scrutiny inquiry into their culture, that may be of interest (http://www.swanseascrutiny.co.uk/2016/06/30/what-was-the-impact-of-the-scrutiny-inquiry-into-corporate-culture/)? Good luck, please do keep us in the loop!

  2. having worked in private public and 3rd sectors I can honestly say I have heard the phrase ” that’s just the way we do things here ” and ” weve always done it like that ” too many times. Not many people are willing to admit this is part of the problem. Just because you may not hear it doesn’t mean it isn’t being said in your organisation.
    great post Paul.

  3. Really interesting post Paul! Got my brain whirring away. 🙂

    It strikes me that our organisations almost need a split brain. One part thinking about how to make existing processes as efficient as possible, the other part thinking about how to rip it all up and start again tomorrow. And to work most effectively, the two sides need to be connected!

    I’m still on the fence about whether it’s possible to disrupt your own business model from the inside. Would require a markedly different mindset from colleagues. Do people feel secure enough to challenge the base assumptions about their roles and possibly why they exist?

  4. Absolutely Neil and certainly the challenge is managing the present whilst stripping out the activities you need to cease so you can find the organisational space to create the future. We not always good at the middle bit – just stopping doing stuff!

  5. Maybe there is a lesson from science: culture is basically about growing bacteria. Organisational culture is often uncomfortable with dissenting voices from within.

  6. Great post (as usual) Paul.
    I got hold of a t-shirt recently with the slogan,
    “The end is totally dependant upon the beginning”.
    It’s a bit ambiguous, but I think that’s the point of it.
    Anyway, what I think it relates to is the idea that the Past, Present and Future all have a role to play.
    Selectively choosing to remember and forget bits from the past are things we’ve done for ages.
    The VW emissions story Dyfrig highlighted is a bit of ‘extreme forgetting’.
    The important part is being able to draw upon many sources and not stifle things that don’t suit pre-ordained plan, the point you make about embracing misfits.

    1. Thanks Chris and I agree. A question I was asked this morning “who decides what gets forgotten?”. As you say it’s having a foot in all camps, at the right points. One of the things we are trying to instil in the other design principles is about making conscious decisions -as I think a lot of organizational design is unconscious and then there’s no evidence of why you did what you did – and impact it brought. But that’s a whole other post!

  7. When I was reading that score list i was nodding, thinking that the HIGHER the score, the better.
    In my head i was thinking of an organisation that had avoided the Deming Deadly Disease off of the 70s, “end the mobility of top management” and having a strong culture of improvement, with a strong culture of success, and i was thinking of an organisation like Toyota (bleurgh, hate quoting ‘lean’ cliches). And so i was taken aback by the scoring being the OTHER way around, cos IF the culture is one of experimenting, of learning etc then that’s a good thing surely?
    I’m only guessing, never having worked in one mind.

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