Together We Remember

Considering Common Memory Spaces

Memorial Day 2020

Usually Memorial Day unofficially kicks off of summer with picnics, beaches and parades. Covid-19 restrictions will likely make this Memorial Day a bit more muted and reflective. That might be a good thing. Taking time to remember together is healthy for a culture.

Reflectively, Memorial Day is our most sober National Holiday. We set it aside to honor and recognize the men and women who’ve died in military service to protect our freedom. Such great sacrifice is worthy of a national day of remembrance and honor. 

On Memorial Day, we look backward on fallen heroes to express our shared gratitude, values and vision. Memorial Day isn’t only for those families who’ve lost loved ones. It’s a common memory space, a day when we remember the cost of freedom together. Common memory spaces are valuable because they unite us, reinforce our values and give us direction as we face new challenges. 

Common memory spaces aren’t only for nations. They are for any group—friends, families, religions and companies. Recognizing and positively cultivating our common memory spaces can also help infuse an organization’s communication and culture with those specific touch points that make the organization unique. 

Memory and the Organization

Organizational memory is like an individual’s memory. It happens organically; it must also be created and nurtured to be useful. Left to its own devices, shared memory will shape the organization in unintended and often undesirable ways. 

Organizational memory is also unlike an individual’s memory. It’s shared collectively (though not universally) by the organization. Organizational memory is formed through experiences, but those experiences aren’t equally distributed. What helps one person may hurt another. And many people weren’t even part of the organization when the memory was formed. 

This is most visible when new people enter an organization. We’ve all experienced coworkers who wax nostalgically for “the way things use to be (before you arrived).” New arrivals may stumble across taboo subjects, or off-limit ideas and initiatives, based on lingering memories of past failures. It isn’t all negative. Best practices are often memories that have been transformed into effective actions. And the new business that a company pursues is driven by a collective memory of what has worked up to this point.

Organizational memory is potent. These collective memories are sticky and they direct our actions. They’re always shaping our experience, even if we aren’t always aware of it.

Short-Term Memory 

Short-term memory gets a lot of attention in most organizations. It’s almost invisible, yet critical to day-to-day functions. If our short-term memory were to malfunction so would we, and our organizations would cease working. Much of our business technology (from sticky notes, to file cabinets, to the cloud) is there to augment short-term memory. We tend a lot to short-term memory, sometimes neglecting the lessons that it is providing. 

There is a trap in short-term memory. It’s critical to the moment, but not much more. Beyond addressing the immediate need, short-term memory can’t decide what’s most important. It can help us achieve, but not prioritize. To be predictive and proactive, we must know where we’ve been and what happened. That is a more complicated calculation than simply accessing the data. It involves reconciling data to long term outcomes and goals. 

Backward-Looking Memory

Looking backward can seem like a waste of time. Consider these bits of well-worn wisdom against spending time in the past:

  • Don’t dwell on the past.
  • It’s water under a bridge.
  • You can’t go back and change things.
  • Don’t look back; you’ll miss what’s in front of you. 

Naturally surfacing, backward-looking memory can take on the dark hues of rumination and nostalgia. This makes sense. The strongest memories often result from trauma. Trauma is a great teacher; one seldom touches fire twice. Focusing on some past pain point can create fear and paralysis. 

The past teaches, but the best lesson isn’t always the one that’s learned. Left uninterpreted, organizational memory can often be tainted by bad events and difficult times. Failed restructuring, mergers that led to drastic layoffs, and other traumas can linger in the collective memory. These can negatively affect employees. Actions and attitudes, with no basis in the present or the future, can weigh an organization down.

Unfortunately, the sticky residue of bad memories is often unrecognized. Therefore, it is difficult to root out and address them. A better option is to be strategic about creating memory spaces that are inherently positive and proactive. 

Strategic Memory

American culture in general, and business in particular, prefers to be forward thinking. Many call that optimism, though there is a distinction between boundless positivity and optimistic realism. An effective optimist doesn’t just look forward. She also reexamines the past to cull the good from the bad. She conducts a reckoning to move forward unencumbered by the past and hopeful about the future. 

Looking only forward actually creates a blind spot leading to bad expectations, decisions and unease among those who’ve been burned before. What we need is a plan to remember and frame what’s important—bring the best of the past to the present as a window on the future. 

Positive, proactive memory is strategic. It requires thought and work. A group of individuals don’t automatically become of one mind. Ideas must be articulated to win collective agreement. It takes leadership and communication to introduce and maintain a good memory space. 

It also takes an honest evaluation of where the organization has been, the good and the bad, to be believed about the future. If an organization attempted a new venture and failed, owning that mistake is critical to sharing the important lessons learned. Simply changing leadership and brushing the mistake under the rug doesn’t instill confidence for the future. 

Strategic leadership builds common memory spaces that can contain the organization’s ups and downs. “We are bold and innovative, and sometimes we get it wrong.” “We are competitive survivors; that means we had to restructure.” The past isn’t ignored. The past is reconciled to an organization’s values system—one that includes successes, failures and commitment to forward vision. I see this at work in Memorial Day. 

A Healing Memory Space

Memorial Day is a strategically created common memory space. It was not formally a National Holiday until 1971. When it was created, it merged separate traditions in the North and the South that emerged after the Civil War—now honoring all those who died in service from the Civil War forward. 

In 1971, the painful memories of the Civil War were significantly past, and the divisive trauma of Vietnam was an open wound. Remember, soldiers returning home from Vietnam were often castigated and reviled publically. Memorial Day helped bridge those two massive chasms, creating a way for all of us to honor those who sacrificed, even when we may be greatly divided politically. It’s worth noting that in the wars fought after creating Memorial Day, including the unpopular Iraq War, soldiers have been honored and treated with the care and respect deserved.

Memorial Day reconciles the past to the present, but also it paves the way forward by reminding us of our shared values, shared sacrifice and shared vision—many died to preserve American freedom. What then should we do?

Together we remember.
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