All organisations have to make a choice about how they encourage institutional memory, and its less frequently discussed inverse, institutional amnesia. Both are important.

Institutional memory

Institutional memory is important because it prevents repeating past mistakes. This applies to straightforward execution failures, but also to recalling the negative tradeoffs of certain approaches. Many organisations swing on a pendulum between two extremes (e.g. highly-integrated cross-functional teams vs separated function-specific teams), as the downsides of one approach create an impulse to change. Remembering that the alternative extreme will also have downsides is helpful in avoiding whiplash between thesis and antithesis, and instead driving towards a Hegel-style synthesis.

Memory is also linked to influence in convincing others of these potential problems. In a political context, Laura Tingle writes about the civil service in an age of rapid turnover:

“Without memories, their capacity, their gravitas to advise politicians, is diminished or wiped out ... With memory goes what is often the most powerful weapon in a bureaucrat’s armoury when trying to influence a minister or the cabinet on a policy issue: the power of the anecdote; the power of a first-person recollection of what happened the last time something was tried.”

Quarterly Essay: Political Amnesia

Institutional amnesia

But deliberate institutional amnesia can also be useful. Too much memory may lead to fixation on the past and an inability to change practices and approaches over time. If there's a strong memory for "how things are done around here", there may not be enough of the innovation that comes from people having to figure out an approach from first principles. The temporary inefficiency of that struggle is for the best overall. A culture-wide example of too much reverence for memory is the elevation of the classics during the dark ages: rather than looking forward to new knowledge, there was an emphasis on reviewing the works of the ancients (exegesis).

Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns

This is satirised in Asimov’s Foundation:

“Look here, now, I’ve got all the works of the old masters — the great archaeologists of the past. I weigh them against each other — balance the disagreements — analyse the conflicting statements — decide which is probably correct — and come to a conclusion. That is the scientific method. At least as I see it. How insufferably crude it would be to go to Arcturus, or to Sol, for instance, and blunder about, when the old masters have covered the ground so much more effectively than we could possibly hope to do.”


A version of this argument can be made in favour of societies that don’t create rigid written rules (such as constitutions) and maintain cultural memory in different ways, such as some Native American cultures:

Radiolab - Oglala memory excerpt

An aggressive memory for mistakes may make it hard to take risks without being forever tarnished by failures. In the novel The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, a literal fog of amnesia is critical to a society restoring its function in the aftermath of a brutal war. The memory of the past is so painful that forgetting it is critical to rebuilding relationships. From a review in the New Yorker, discussing the lifting of the fog*:*

The restoration of memory is a bitter pleasure, it seems: Beatrice and Axl recover their intimate past, but historically the mist has enabled a period of peace, wherein Saxons and Britons had productively forgotten their former enmities and grievances. “Who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now?”

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Folly | The New Yorker

Balancing memory and amnesia