…how many times do you find yourself hearing this phrase in conversations and meetings at work, perhaps like me you sometimes even find yourself saying it? The phrase generally comes from the mouths of managers and I’ve noticed in the run up to the election that one or two of our public figures are also using it; especially the ones that are relying on our collective short memories to vote them into office. It’s one of those oft used off the cuff catch all phrases that seems to have gained increasing popularity over the years and the hidden but undeniable inference that oozes from it, is a subtle yet tangible instruction on the part of the teller to the receiver that we should just look ahead and get on with things; time is money, the pressure to perform and produce short term results is on us all and we don’t have time to worry about how we got here or the luxury of thinking too closely about what led us to this point…after all, you wouldn’t want to be viewed as one of those negative people that dwells on the past, would you?
But of course the reality is that individuals or organisations very rarely “are where we are”, we are more often than not where we placed ourselves, where we were placed or sometimes where we were unwittingly moved. And don’t believe those who tell you that the only thing that matters in a given moment is where we go next; it’s not.
Unlocking the past and understanding how you got where you are, wherever that is, is a really important part of helping organisations and individuals to understand where to go and what to do next; in some parts of society they call this process learning and the most successful of individuals and organisations are, without exception, very good at it.
Yet organisations, especially those in the Public Sector seem to suffer terribly with corporate memory loss. Public Sector bodies seem especially prone to this condition, in large part because they are at the mercy of the ideology of whichever political regime is in power and so have little if any control of their own destiny…why would you expend effort remembering the lessons of the past and capturing the knowledge they offer if you are not only powerless to change direction for the future but you also won’t be penalized for repeating your mistakes? If the Public Sector were an animal I think we might be a cross between the Gold Fish and the Kakapos, the New Zealand Parrot, an unfortunate bird with wings of a sort but unable to fly, attractively marked yet somewhat dim and completely unable to survive in any other environment than the culturally artificial island that we have created for ourselves. Combine these qualities with the organisational memory span of a Gold Fish and the recipe for our strange protected species is complete.
In his book the Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge suggests that today’s problems are the result of yesterdays solutions; the logic and insight contained in this phrase is stunningly self-apparent, yet how many of us allow ourselves to be drawn into quick fix after quick fix that leads us to implementing exactly the kind of short term solutions that create, perpetuate and reinforce our longer term issues? So next time you find yourself saying “we are where we are”, set some time aside to understand how you got there, it may not suit the objectives of those who just want you to move, but it might help you find a better way forward…