We know much more than we remember. And intriguingly, we often already know the answers to our most pressing problems. It’s just that we can’t find our way to them.

Let me explain.

camera-woodsI’ve not taken enough holiday photos. I stopped for many years after a trip to Japan which I experienced through my camera’s viewfinder. In my panic not to ‘miss’ anything, I ended up missing everything that was outside the shot! I resolved to ‘be here now’ on subsequent expeditions.

I only started taking snaps again when I got a camera bundled in my iPhone. I still find it surprising to flick back through pictures and rediscover events that I’d consciously forgotten, even though they happened less than a year ago. Without the prompts, I wouldn’t have exactly forgotten these events, but I wouldn’t have remembered them, either.

This selective amnesia is something I’ve come to appreciate in my work. It’s a source of repeated surprise and delight to find that a client has already done the thing, or has the knowledge, that—if reapplied—would transform their situation.

I was working with an entrepreneur who had decided that the key to an ambitious goal was to win the support of a certain type of difficult-to-reach ‘senior executive.’ To listen to him, finding such a person would be almost as hard as the goal itself. I enquired—forensically, to his irritation—into the characteristics they were seeking.

“They’d be a senior finance executive who was not just concerned with compliance or costs, but was genuinely prepared to support innovation across their business.”

“What else?” I asked.

“They wouldn’t just be paying lip-service to doing new things: they’d really mean it.”

“What else?”

“For goodness sake. Er… they’d have the authority to take action and the clout to make it stick.”

“What else?”

“Andy, you are starting to irritate me. Em…they’d be intellectually curious enough to listen to how my idea might help them… wait a minute. I met someone like that only last week in Hong Kong. I’ll email him!”

camera-lenseSimilarly, one divisional vice-president needed to increase sales to large existing customers in a hurry. His team’s discussions had settled into a rut: All they could think of was to launch new—unspecified—products, recruit additional sales people, or both. Not unreasonable. But the business cases were yet to be made, and even assuming approval, the actual implementation was going to be too slow.

We looked at it afresh, and when we finally got out of the rut, concluded that what actually could work in time was a new customer intimacy programme.

“You mean like this one we designed in 2002?” said a colleague.

All the groundwork was done, and the programme was implemented in 3 months.

The point of holiday photos is to re-evoke positive memories. It’s not that we’ve forgotten the memories – it’s just that we don’t remember them. Similarly, more often than you think, it’s not that you don’t have the ability to achieve something, it’s that you don’t remember that you do.


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