How to build institutional memory

Organizations usually fail to capture the information that's locked within the heads of its employees. Products such as knowledge management software and Slack try to help, but suffer from poor use (former) and digression to irrelevance because of its ubiquity (latter). Moreover, perceived divisions within the organization only succeed in increasing the barriers of sharing, losing yet another opportunity to level up both the employees and the organization itself.

Failure to capture this information is a wasted opportunity to build institutional memory. And frankly, it's wasting precious talent and mental power that could be used to drive growth.

Put your brains in your footlocker, I'll do the thinking around here

When Stanley McChrystal inherited JSOC, there was a lot of wasted brainpower with perceived information silos. Instead, the four-star general revamped the routine 90-minute Operations and Intelligence daily brief, or the O & I. In Stanley McChrystal's Team of Teams, it's described:

When McChrystal took over command of JSOC, he held a daily update among 50 or so top leaders in the organization. "By the time I gave up command, it was more than 7,000. We did it every day," he says, a 90-minute update for essentially the whole command to spread awareness and synchronization. Of course, every organization will need to take its own approach, but the bottom line is that "you need a robust communication form for everybody to develop a shared consciousness," he says - Insights by Stanford Business

By opening up the O&I briefings, McChrystal created a shared consciousness across a team, so that special forces operators and intelligence analysts, oftentimes opposite ends of the operating spectrum, would understand how their work impacts the other. No longer was information silo'd in one division or department and therefore the entire organization felt like it was divided, but rather the information sharing made the entire organization one piece, moving and in sync with another.

Some of the tactics that worked for O&I were:

  • ensuring briefings were done often, that key leaders like McChrystal showed up and contributed, and really talk about the real goods and bads of the organization
  • increasing the personal bonds between the teams, so downstream impact of information could be personally felt
  • shifting the purpose of the meeting to encourage open discussion, rather than merely updates
  • limiting the line to ensure updates were kept at a minimum and discussions were maximized. A focus was on asking questions
  • highlighting the purpose of the organization and subtly defining that the group's shared consciousness was greater than the parts
  • making the update too important to be missed with timely information, up to date information, and with important people attending