09/04/2014

By Dominic Irvine, founder of Epiphanies LLP,Surely what had been described couldn't have happened…..could it?

Memory is an active process. We fill in missing gaps in the information we are trying to recall and dismiss facts that do not fit into our expectations. We embellish some things and edit others. Something as significant as being involved in a major accident – a situation you would think would be permanently and indelibly burned into your memory - can get changed.

In a recent discussion with my colleagues, one recounted a story from his previous job when he and his colleagues were on a bus when right next them a road traffic accident occurred. They were allowed to continue on their way by the Police without any statements having been taken. The following morning they were discussing the incident and it was, he said, as if 15 people had seen 15 different accidents.

On a scale of 1 – 10
A demonstration of how we view ourselves and remember things in a way that overstates our contribution is a perception test I carry out when working with business teams. I ask them to rate their individual performance on a number of specific performance criteria. I then repeat the exercise asking them to rate the rest of the people in the room as a group. On every single occasion I have done this, the average of the individual rating is always higher than the average of the rating given to the rest of the team. It seems our perception and memories of what we have done are held in such a way that we feel we have done better than others think we have.

What are the lessons for business
Such problems with memory and recall do not make for running a good business. We need people to remember what happened and when. I’ve been in too many meetings where there has been a disagreement over what was said previously and it's a painful experience that drives in frustration, conflict and a breakdown in trust. So, what can we do?

Keep great records
Keep great records of what was said and done. It doesn't need to be an essay, but a few key bullets jotted down, or a couple of pages of contemporaneous notes go a long way to help reconfigure what was remembered with what actually happened.

In meetings, ensure everyone agrees the conclusions of what has been discussed and as soon as possible send round a summary of those points and keep them on file. Whilst the meeting may seem unimportant now, you have no idea whether the conclusions reached could be a critical piece of information in the future.

Keep future focused
Getting overly worked up about what happened in the past is a pointless activity – it’s not as if you could do something about it. Instead keep the focus on the future and how you would like things to be. Arguments about what happened in the past in the absence of documented information are much more about wanting to be ‘right’ rather than about solving problems.

Peace of mind
I wonder how many hours are wasted in business between people arguing over who said what and when, memory that without records is almost certainly erroneous on both sides? I encourage you to become more diligent about taking good quality notes. It might cost you some time now, but it will save you heartache and hours of discussion later.