Learning from the past

Question for all Board Directors. How does your board record and keep alive learnings from the ongoing board experience? If learnings only live in the minds of current directors, that loss of knowledge hurts the organisation when the director retires their position or completes their term. If learnings are left as minute items or “summarised points” in minutes they get confined to history pretty quickly.

To avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over as the composition of the board organically shifts over time, or to gain a perspective that only time provides, We recommend to clients they maintain a learnings register that is accessible to all current directors and is used in strategy days and strategy discussions. We need to understand the past, to make sense of the present and plan for the future.

There is a term klexos, ‘the art of dwelling in the past’ which provides a useful perspective for boards. “Your life is written in indelible ink. There’s no going back to erase the past, tweak your mistakes, or fill in missed opportunities. When the moment’s over, your fate is sealed. But if look closer, you notice the ink never really dries on any our experiences. They can change their meaning the longer you look at them.

There are ways of thinking about the past that aren’t just nostalgia or regret. A kind of questioning that enriches an experience after the fact. To dwell on the past is to allow fresh context to trickle in over the years, and fill out the picture; to keep the memory alive, and not just as a caricature of itself. So you can look fairly at a painful experience, and call it by its name.

Time is the most powerful force in the universe. It can turn a giant into someone utterly human, just trying to make their way through. Or tell you how you really felt about someone, even if you couldn’t at the time. It can put your childhood dreams in context with adult burdens or turn a universal consensus into an embarrassing fad. It can expose cracks in a relationship that once seemed perfect. Or keep a friendship going by thoughts alone, even if you’ll never see them again. It can flip your greatest shame into the source of your greatest power, or turn a jolt of pride into something petty, done for the wrong reasons, or make what felt like the end of the world look like a natural part of life.

The past is still mostly a blank page, so we may be doomed to repeat it. But it’s still worth looking into if it brings you closer to the truth.

Maybe it’s not so bad to dwell in the past, and muddle in the memories, to stem the simplification of time, and put some craft back into it. Maybe we should think of memory itself as an art form, in which the real work begins as soon as the paint hits the canvas. And remember that a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”