In Japan, large stones dot the coastline, marking the furthest point that historic tsunamis reached inland. Known as “tsunami stones,” they serve as visual reminders of past destruction, warning future generations not to build their houses beyond these boundaries.

Tsunami stones preserve community knowledge and prevent repeated mistakes. Their message is clear: Remember the past or risk peril in the future.

Organizations need their own “tsunami stones”—markers that preserve institutional memory and learnings from past efforts. Without such guideposts, amnesia sets in, and past lessons fade.

The danger of organizational amnesia

According to Columbia Business School professor and strategy expert Rita McGrath, at our most recent Outthinker Networks strategy and innovation executive summit, most organizations have shockingly short memories—they lose track of key learnings and past initiatives in as little as six weeks.

Imagine the waste when organizations generate ideas only to fail to launch a few months later. Or they repeat tests and pilots without minding “tsunami stones” that have recorded learnings from identical ones that already occurred. Such amnesia severely hampers organizations’ ability to learn and build on past efforts.

The role of narrative

In society, storytelling plays a vital role in cultural memory, reminding people of past events and preserving identity across generations. In native cultures when water would recede, leaving an abundance of fish washed up on the shore, the villagers knew not to eat the fish. Instead, stories told them to run to the mainland because a storm was coming. Stories are passed down to preserve knowledge.

Likewise, organizations sustain memory through narratives—the stories they convey about efforts that worked or failed. There are two common narratives we hear from organizations:

  1. Failure is the path to failure. (“That didn’t work last time, so we won’t try again.”)
  2. Failure is the path to success. (“That didn’t work last time, but here is what we learned for the next experiment.)

The first inhibits learning from failure. With each failed attempt, employees are permitted increasingly narrow avenues of exploration.

Some organizations, like Amazon, employ the second narrative, promoting constructive learning from failure. Each time they fail, they expand knowledge to fuel future experimentation and improvements.

Which narrative exists in your organization?

Setting up “permission pockets”

True innovation requires pockets of permission—spaces where employees have license to try new things, with no negative consequence of failure. Rather than reflexively avoiding past approaches that faltered, innovative organizations methodically explore selected initiatives, understand why they failed, and discern how to improve next time.

To transform failure into learning, it is critical to preserve memory—to capture details through post-mortems, retention of key talent, and purposeful storytelling. These organizational “tsunami stones” mark the high-water line of past efforts, signaling key learnings to inform future innovation.

How can your organization better retain its memory and learn from the past? Here are some ideas to strengthen institutional memory:

  • Document post-mortems after project conclusion—not just what happened but also insights on what to try differently next time
  • Designate innovation guides who shepherd ideas across project cycles to preserve learnings
  • Build a searchable knowledge base to retain reports/analysis/ideas in an accessible central repository
  • Encourage teams to share stories about past efforts, celebrating failures, to spread lessons learned
  • Institute regular reviews of past projects and initiatives to remind people of what was tried and gaps to address

In our organizations, the seeds of future innovation already exist in our past efforts—both successes and failures. We need only to effectively tap into our collective memory to nurture those seeds for the future.

Image by Roselinde Bon