Lost knowledge and failing teams: how managers undermine successful cultures


Lost knowledge and failing teams: how managers undermine successful cultures

My last year at the army was as a cadet instructor. This was the last step in the training of officers in my core, training young platoon commanders, and we all took pride in the structure of the course which – after having gone through it with several cadet groups – we felt like we almost perfected. When we finished our last course two months ahead of getting discharged, the team spent all this time to document and preserve the methods, drills and exercises we ran our cadets through.

One single month after most of us left, the course commander was promoted to a senior position within the core, and a replacement was pooled from within the ranks. His first move? Throwing all of the documentation out the window and declaring it obsolete. Now, were we the best instructors who ever lived? Probably not. Did he know a thing or two about cadet instruction? I should hope so. Was this move smart? No way.

The same thing happens every day in the business world, especially in medium and large companies. Lately I’ve been investigating a new industry and wondered why some very simple optimization steps haven’t been adopted. I kept wondering until I ran across an experienced advisor, who told me the story of how my suggestions were implemented in the
early 90s
. Wait, I asked, so why aren’t they doing it now?

They forgot, he said. They forgot. Spend a moment to realize how interesting this is.

People remember, organizations forget, and the vehicle of that forgetfulness is managers who are too short term focused to recognize that an aspect of the culture has to be maintained or improved. They tend to neglect knowledge transfer and maintenance until the loss of key employees leads to key knowledge having to be re-learned over and over again.

How do you make sure this doesn’t happen to you?

  • You must have a work manual, your “bible” so to speak.
    The manual is where your methods and terms are kept and what new employees get trained on, repeatedly, until they speak your language. Organizational culture doesn’t evolve bottom up on its own, or rather it does when you don’t pay attention to it but not necessarily as you’d need it to. Anything from how you treat your customers to expense report ethics is impacted by what you instill.
  • The manual must evolve.
    In my teams most of the new entrants were required to add to the training plan, based on material they were missing when they went through it, as close as possible to their start date. The “beginner’s mind” is priceless in challenging your status quo and your manual’s assumptions. Use that.
  • No single points of failure.
    Code must be documented, responsibility must be shared or at least have some redundancy. Everybody should be replaceable – that doesn’t make them expendable or not important, just not single points of failure. If you need to contract a developer who left last month since he is the only one who knows his part of the code, you did something wrong.
  • Have a succession plan.
    This is related to the previous point but very hard to implement in fast paced organizations and war-time. Still, as long as you’re growing, your team must be filled with people who are ready, and preparing, to step up. You will usually not enjoy the luxury of a transition period for any of your key hires, and being left without anyone to take a job will spread you thin and rattle the team.
  • You don’t have to make a change.
    I’m not saying “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. What I’m saying is that if it clearly works well, don’t change it. You don’t have to leave your mark on everything. Find what’s not working and fix that before going after the low hanging fruits of your comfort zone.
  • Last, but maybe most important:
    Always understand the reason
    . Aristotle is attributed with the saying “Law is mind without reason”. Many senior managers never bother learning the details of the day to day work of their teams, and thus remain unqualified to make some very important decisions, that they take anyway. If you don’t understand why something was put in place, if the reason behind a norm or method is lost, investigate. Don’t assume it’s wrong. Understand your subject matter, then use your best judgement to decide.

The worst thing you can do as a succeeding manager is break something that works well. The best thing you can do is build on strong foundations to continue driving your team to success. Doing that is pretty straightforward, albeit not very easy.


Lost knowledge and failing teams: how managers undermine successful cultures

Finding the Right Flow in Your Presentation


少年心气 - 艾伦·斯沃兹(Aaron Swartz) 的传奇



Lost knowledge and failing teams: how managers undermine successful cultures