Can Memory Palaces Work for Organizations?

Stephanie Gioia
Mar 25, 2016 · 3 min read

The article An Ancient and Proven Way to Improve Memorization in yesterday’s New York Times reignited a long-standing interest I’ve had in memory palaces, ever since The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci was assigned reading at my university. It got me thinking about the relationship between visual thinking and memory and what would happen if organizations used memory palaces. Would they have a better shared understanding of goals and priorities?

First, what’s a memory palace?

Well, read the article (and the take the quiz) — it’s awesome. But in short, as Austin Frakt explains:

“the approach involves associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations”

Or as Jonathan Spence so elegantly shares through the tale of 16th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (yes, this memory palace thing is a very old idea):

“To everything that we wish to remember, we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to reclaim it by an act of memory.”

But what about a group of people? Can they share a memory palace?

Frakt outlines the research supporting how this place-based, visual memorization technique dramatically improves an individual’s ability to recall information.

But what about organizations? Because as much as I despair over forgetting the birthdays of my nieces and nephews or my shopping list, my individual memory doesn’t scare me as much as pitfalls of collective memory.

Consider a recent study published in Harvard Business Review by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull that finds:

“Only 55% of the middle managers we have surveyed can name even one of their company’s top five priorities”

Uh oh. Now, there might be all sorts of reasons why this is true — information overload, conflicting messages across the organization, dysfunctional communication flows — but really? That means just shy of half of the managers running organizations can recall ZERO things the organization has made a top priority. Zero.

But there is hope!

The research shows that visuals that are co-created by groups to explain a shared idea result in big jumps in recall and retention (see end note). Academics call this shared mental model formation. It’s cool stuff. At my former company XPLANE, we called it visual thinking. But it’s essentially the same thing: creating a shared picture of something makes it much easier to understand and remember. If we build the memory palace together, we find ourselves living in the same mental space, walking around the imaginary halls of our mind seeing the same goals, remembering the same priorities.

Upon reflection, it’s actually pretty common for the visualizations we create for clients to use buildings as an effective visual metaphor for telling stories about vision, strategy, process, culture, etc. In fact, one might argue our own company value proposition is articulated in the form of a memory palace.

Are the most important priorities, principles, or strategies at your organization trapped inside PowerPoints? Confined by bullet points? Are they not yet alive in the minds eye of your people? Does your organization need a memory palace?

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