Institutional Baggage: When looking back keeps you from going forward

By Tom Davidson

My foot was still on the accelerator when the air bags collapsed in my lap. I had been looking back into traffic and looking for a gap to pull into far longer than I should have and failed to look forward at the car in front of me, who’s driver had changed her mind and NOT moved into traffic as I had thought. I hit her while from zero to 60 mph – looking over my shoulder.

Fortunately, the woman I hit from behind was unhurt, and her car was a solid as a house, otherwise my backwards focus could have ruined her life – and mine.

The leaders and teams I work with sometimes do the same thing. They look backwards at their faults and failures of the past, at the wrongs that were done to them by others who are long gone, and at how things didn’t work before so they won’t work now.

When does institutional knowledge become institutional baggage?
Institutional knowledge is learning from the past to inform decisions about the future. Institutional baggage is negative feelings about the past that affect objectivity about what’s best for the future.

Institutional knowledge is being loyal to the organization’s history, values, and legacy. Institutional baggage is feeling that change dishonors the past, even though the situation has changed and adaptation is needed.

Institutional knowledge is knowing how things used to get done with familiar tools, methods and technologies of the “good ol’ days.” Institutional baggage is the failure to learn new tools, new methods and new technologies because we don’t understand them or resent that things have changed.

Don’t let your institutional knowledge get in the way of your future. Glance over your shoulder long enough to be informed, but spend far more time looking through the windshield, at where you’re headed not where you’ve been. Otherwise, as leaders, we might be setting ourselves up for the very failure we are trying to avoid.

It’s the nature of groups, teams and organizations, and it’s the nature of leadership.

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