How to start a library of dead ideas

bombed library A great big Nazi bomb couldn’t scare these gents off their knowledge.

But you wouldn’t need a bomb in most organisations. Not because people don’t like knowledge, but because you need a memory to have knowledge.  Memory and knowledge aren’t about memorising lists of facts, like memorising your French vocabulary before Friday’s test at school   It’s about learning. Using reality to update your mental models of the universe, or that small bit of the universe that you happen to work in.

What happens when your organisation can’t learn because it doesn’t have a memory?

It is condemned to live in an eternal present, always repeating the same things round and round. You need that memory to remind you of what you thought when you started doing stuff. It stops you doing the same thing again and again.

Meet the museum of failed products!
This museum looks like a weird supermarket with only one example of every item that’s ever been sold in a supermarket.

Product designers go to the museum for ideas from other product ranges. For example designers of sunscreen identified the technology used for years in hair spray products and used it for spray bottles of sunscreen.
Museum of Failed Products

You can’t buy any of these, they mainly are examples of what nobody bought.

The museum was started in the 1960s by Robert McMath, a salesman who wanted to start a “reference library” of products, their design, use, look. So he bought a sample of one of everything that ever made its way into the shops.

Over time the museum morphed from being a collection of everything that made its way into the shops into something more interesting.

“What McMath hadn’t taken into account was the three-word truth that was to prove the making of his career: “Most products fail.” According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%. Simply by collecting new products indiscriminately, McMath had ensured that his hoard would come to consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.” [link]

It is not just products, it is a history of ideas that didn’t work.


“hmmm…breakdancing…spaghetti… It just might work!”

This is immensely valuable.

The museum is visited by product developers who don’t know what has been tried and hasn’t worked from their own company. They don’t keep examples of their own products to learn from.  Typically they will be walking through the aisles and point at an example of their own products that they were unaware they had tried in the past!

Oh how I wish Local Government had a museum of failed ideas. Nicely organised, easily searched.

But wait! We do! It’s hidden in our drawers! In our filing cabinets! In our old email folders! We just don’t know it’s there as we don’t see it as valuable, it’s just old. On with the new!

This stuff isn’t treated right, as lessons that could be learnt, so it just accumulates in big piles and eventually people get annoyed. A while ago there was a big office clean up. A Friday was set aside for a big spring-clean. We all hoofed through drawers, turfing out the old rubbish so we could get rid, and carry on making the same mistakes, unencumbered with the burden of knowledge, fresh and eager to carry on with our own disastrous versions of McSpaghetti.

photo (5)

What we copied in 2010. WHAT were we thinking! What we copy in 2013 is MUCH less embarrassing.

The above might not look that valuable. It is what it is, a record of desperate copying off others. But the lesson hidden in there is immensely valuable, if only it were extracted. A bit like diamonds are worthless whilst still in the ground, you can’t see how valuable this stuff is until you dig out the lessons. Til then it’s just documents to throw away.

photo (2)

Somewhere in here is the cure for cancer. Just well-hidden

All sorts went, this photo here almost makes me cry. It is years of a Policy Officer’s work. They carry around with them these blue hardback books, making notes and that. It virtually contains the DNA of a policy unit.

Admittedly this isn’t DNA of something that would be useful, like an eagle or a woodlouse, but it WOULD be useful.

It would tell of all the things that we did and continue to do to no effect. But if it’s left in books or documents, it’s of no use to anybody.

It needs a keen-eyed curator of failed ideas to extract the lessons and lay them neatly out in the right way.

I did this!

I’ve already wrote about when I attempted to do a mini-museum of failed attempts at doing performance management, here.

Recently I unravelled the last 4 goes round, straightened them out, and put them onto a wall, in chronological order, every permutation of every framework. All the ICT systems named and shamed, the despicable scorecards that were the length of a grown man, every obscenity dragged out of its performance grave and into the purifying light of day.
We had them all, lassoed and rounded up safely tacked to a long wall, away from children.

The photo below is my exhibit of dead ideas in performance management. Further along is the photos of the despicable scorecards, too horrid to view, definitely NSFW.

photo (3) From this linear history, I showed us not learning at every available juncture, so we end up going round in circles. The now beloved Performance Merry-Go-Round.

Without history, you can’t avoid the repeating behaviours. The same pitiful ideas lumber from their grave, Zombie ideas that are never properly killed by the simple method of learning that they don’t work.

Sadly, not this

Imagine trying to dig out what didn’t work in 2003, because it has lurched around again in 2013, when you have to try and dig through this?

detroit books

a bit like this

derelict library

Or this. the cure for cancer is DEFINTELY in there

This ISNT a call for some dreadful knowledge management software. Urrgh.

We don’t need that. We already come pre-fitted with the best of them, it is handily located between the ears and we all have one.

So no need to wait, start your OWN library! Simply adopt the role of curator of failed ideas! Start today before something valuable is deleted. Three tips for starting your own Library of Dead Ideas…

  1. Identify something, anything, that is a current and repeatable problem. Something that never really is solved. Or even better, a repeated solution, that comes around time and again, and never solves anything. Look REALLY closely, you’ll find that lots of “new” solutions are just last years solution wearing a jaunty hat.
  2. Dig back through emails, old folders on abandoned shared drives. Find all the previous attempts at doing the same thing. Stick ’em up on a wall in a big long line. Show people.
  3. They won’t believe you, but at least you will have tried and you will have evidence. You’re not wrong if you have evidence, you’re just first to learn.

The typical organisational memory.

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