A Consultant's View

Prairie Trail Software, Inc. ............................................................. August 2010

The Importance of Forgetting

Brain researchers are learning that memory is not just about remembering something. Often, equally important is the ability to forget something. Our society is built based on the ability to forget. That is the only way that the mass of humanity is able to ride the subway day after day to work and not be overwhelmed with remembering all the people we saw on the way.

Forgetting is not just "not remembering". It is also about making judgments about what is important to remember. We start with short term memory and only move the "important" events into long term memory.

Forgetting is an important part of social healing. Thus, religions have rites to "forgive" and to help the society heal. Western justice systems include ways to wipe a transgression off of the legal record. Countries that had major trauma often try to use a "truth commission" to get the story out so that people can let go of remembering. In the classic novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, the plot revolves around those who would not forget and forgive what was done (and the harm they caused by that remembering).

There are some people who have little or no ability to forget. Many of these people are not able to function in society because they can't determine what is important information and what is not. They can recite back to you everything that was said in a meeting, but not be able to filter and condense the information down. Because they can not forget, any hurt, any trauma is still just as raw as the day it happened. One such person described her life as agonizing.

Likewise, in business, forgetting is an important part of moving on into new fields and new markets. Thus, one of the most important learning curves at a company is the "Unlearning Curve". When moving on, a business has to "forget" how things worked five years ago and learn what works today. Sales channels keep changing as companies go out of business and new ones form.

Forgetting is a challenge for successful companies. Companies that thrived in one area often stumble as the market changed. Google dominates searches, but others are both figuring out how to "lie" to Google and to work around the perceived need for a search. One place even says that if a customer needs to do a search, that is almost a defect of their web site.

In order to forget, companies put in place procedures to identify what no longer works, develop strategies to move to the new, and do the painful changes to people so that they give up what they used to do.

The first time, Apple Computer did it at a cost of alienating many people within the company as they switched from the Apple II to the Macintosh. The second time, Steve Jobs had to leave the company for a number of years before he could come back and lead the company into a new way of doing business.

Forgetting is such an important part of humanity that, as a society, we not used to how nothing is getting forgotten on the Web. We are not used to people being able to track down everything we wrote 30 years ago. Nowadays, we are recording more and more of life and people are not ready for what will happen. Pictures posted many years ago can come back to haunt someone. As a society, we need to address how to forget and what to forget.