There’s a business phenomenon when someone in an organization says, does, decides, or advocates something one day, only to conveniently forget about it later, when it doesn’t serve their personal interests. My good friend, Tony Vannicola, labeled this business phenomenon, “corporate amnesia.”

Corporate amnesia infects different organizations and different people at different rates. How frequently corporate amnesia happens varies based on how much pressure there is in an organization and the underlying political environment.

We ran into major case of corporate amnesia during a combined conference call and in-person meeting recently. An individual who had provided very specific direction previously sat quietly, letting silence disclaim any responsibility for having made a decision contrary to the direction we were now receiving from another person.

I was on the phone without an ability to see faces and body language. This made it difficult to manage the business conversation back to our previous meeting and the very specific direction we’d received. Our challenge was compounded because we hadn’t laid the strategic groundwork to protect ourselves, so shame on us.

What could we have done differently during the project to better combat corporate amnesia?

Here are nine strategies available to us and you if you’re facing a business situation where you think corporate amnesia will surface:

  • Stay super organized and focus on project management. Maintain very complete files with easy-to-locate drafts and interim documents.
  • Over-communicate, especially for someone who “loses” documents. Make sure you can retrieve key documents whenever you need them for verification.
  • Avoid one-on-one conversations with the person who has corporate amnesia. Pair up and have joint conversations so you have someone else to corroborate what transpired in a business meeting.
  • At the start of business meetings, review or post a list of decisions made previously.  Reference the list whenever you need it during the meeting.
  • Instead of waiting for approval deadlines which may be ignored, identify dates by which, if input isn’t received, you will continue to move forward with the current strategic direction.
  • Complete post-discussion and business meeting recaps highlighting decisions, relevant information shared, and any other agreements. Distribute it to everyone involved.
  • Only pin someone down publicly for corporate amnesia if you absolutely must. It’s much better to do it privately.
  • If you must call someone on corporate amnesia in a bigger meeting, introduce what really happened with a shred of uncertainty (I.e., “If I recall correctly, I think what happened was . . .”). This allows someone to regain their memory while saving a little face.
  • Never forget people who display corporate amnesia and set your strategy accordingly when working with them.

Have you had to deal with “corporate amnesia”? What’s worked for you? – Mike Brown

The Brainzooming Group helps make smart organizations more successful by rapidly expanding their strategic options and creating innovative plans they can efficiently implement. Email us at [email protected] or call us at 816-509-5320 to learn how we can help enhance your marketing strategy and implementation efforts.

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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8 Responses to “Corporate Amnesia – 9 Ways to Prevent and Avoid It”

  1. Jamie Turner says:

    As always, great stuff, Mike. Thanks for sharing these ideas. I’ve done some consulting in dysfunctional environments before, too, and it’s a challenge. Great book on the subject is “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and it lays out what causes it and how to get past it. Amazon link here: http://goo.gl/MVWFg

    Keep the great posts coming!

  2. Anonymous says:

    In soliciting input on Google+ this weekend about corporate amnesia, Dale Emery shared this great insight:

    “I think every organization suffers from “meeting amnesia” unless they take steps to avoid it. I have, immediately following meetings, talked to each person involved in a decision, and asked them to say what was decided. There were always different interpretations of the decision. Sometimes the differences were as enormous as one person thinking we decided to do X, and another thinking we had decided not to do X.

    “One time, my boss’s boss noticed that his staff meetings led to lots of decisions and action items, followed immediately by lots of amnesia about decisions and action items. So I was invited to the meetings to listen for those things, write them down, and review them at the end of the meeting. At the start of each meeting, we’d walk through the list from the last meeting, checking for completion or progress.

    “I think the key was the end-of-meeting review. I would read each item. We would clarify the language if necessary (though I often did this at the point the item was raised, before I wrote it down). And, probably most importantly, the person who was to take responsibility for the item would commit explicitly and publicly to the item.

    “When I facilitate sessions where people are making decisions and solving problems, I like to use flip charts, not only to write stuff down, but to make both the idea and the exact phrasing of the idea immediately visible to everyone in the room. That inevitably leads to wordsmithing, which can feel to some people like a complete waste of time. But what’s happening is that we are detecting ambiguities and differing interpretations early, so we can resolve the while it’s inexpensive, rather than discovering the errors only after we’ve implemented the wrong thing.”

  3. Alex Buznego says:

    Great post Mike. Knowing who your working with is huge and remembering who displays “corporate amnesia” has saved me a lot of trouble in the past. I also really like your point on how to call someone on corporate amnesia. In all situations where you must bring a negative habit or action to a persons attention you must be very careful in how you choose your words so the person doesn’t feel attacked.


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