Is time-bound memory causing you to be stuck in the status quo?

I recently had to get a CT Scan. I was nervous about the procedure because my father had a terrible reaction to the contrast dye used for the imaging, and even had to be resuscitated on the scanning table. I thought there would be a high likelihood that as his daughter, I may have a similar reaction.

I spoke with the doctor, who quickly dismissed my concerns. He said there was nothing to worry about, and the team was highly trained in rare cases such as my father’s. Still wasn’t comforted by this news. I mentioned that my father had been allergic to shellfish, and I understood the contrast dye had some of these ingredients (which really was the cause of his reaction). Even though I only have a mild shellfish allergy, I wasn’t ready to test the theory.

At that point, the doctor said, “Oh, yes, that was the case over 10 years ago. The dye doesn’t have that in it anymore.”

Needless to say, I had the CT scan without incident. But my father’s past experience had been locked in my brain. I thought, if he had a CT scan and had a bad reaction to the dye, I would have a high likelihood of the same outcome. However, I hadn’t considered time. My father had his scan back in 2005 – some 16 years prior. Of course, things would change in 16 years. But I was fixated on the memory, and not on learning about what has changed since then. If I hadn’t asked further questions to understand how the dye chemistry had changed, I may have simply avoided the procedure altogether.

Our memories are time-bound – we often look back on something that we learned or experienced and frequently consider it to be fact, rather than examining if the circumstances have changed. This can significantly limit not only opportunities for growth and change but more importantly, getting organizations out of the status-quo cycle.

For example, I was recently speaking to a client about conducting customer research, and the need to conduct a series of in-person interviews to learn more about unmet customer needs. The SVP pushed back quickly, stating, “Oh, we’ve tried that before, and it’s useless. At another organization I worked at, we used to conduct focus groups monthly to gather insights about customers. We spent an inordinate amount of money on these groups and it never garnered any insights of value. It was a big waste of time.”

However, considering time-bound memory, was this SVP’s recollection the case today? More importantly, his perception of focus groups was how to gather customer input, and his experience back then (over 10 years ago) was poor. Yet today, with many interview and research techniques having changed, new approaches, and one-on-one structured discussions, will create totally different outcomes. Just like my time-bound memory of the CT scan dye, he was believing his past experience applied to today’s (changed) circumstances.

When we try to fight back against the status quo in our organizations, we need to consider time-bound memory. What people remember might have been accurate at the time, but has little to no relevance to today’s circumstances. We don’t consider what has changed. We likely haven’t even explored it – we simply rely on our past experiences to guide our future decisions.

But the world is continually changing. We need to be conscious of our time-bound memory and be active in exploring and capturing new information. Otherwise, we might just get locked into our past perceptions and miss out on opportunities for positive, productive change.

About the Author

Andrea Belk Olson is a speaker, author, applied behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers and No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing.

She is a four-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive MagazineEntrepreneur MagazineThe Financial BrandIndustry Week, and more. Andrea is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and Director of the Startup Business Incubator at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also a mentor at the University of Iowa Venture School.


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