“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us”. So says Tony Webster, the central character in Julian Barnes’s Man Booker-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. In case you haven't read it, the book tells the story of one man’s relationship with his memory and the way in which it becomes distorted and twisted with age, to the point where it no longer provides an accurate portrayal of past events.
A major incident in the novel is when Tony comes into contact with quite a menacing letter that he had sent years previously to an ex-girlfriend and his then friend, who were planning to get together. What the letter does is remind Tony of what he was really like when he was younger. Prior to reading it, he had thought of himself as the saint in their relationship. In reality, however, he was less the victim and more the perpetrator. Seeing the letter again after so many years effectively opens up a Pandora’s box of truths that he had mentally stowed away, hoping that they wouldn’t tarnish the self-serving story he had created for himself.
While many of us can probably relate on a personal level to the difficulty of recalling accurate memories, is it not also true that these same issues affect our performance in the workplace? Do we not – albeit subconsciously – also forget key events that happen during our time on different projects, in different teams and with different employers? Things that prove uncomfortable to think about, that present a mental obstacle to what is otherwise a happily flowing narrative.
It could be the awkward reality of why a project went over budget, why staff turnover was so high or why sale figures were so poor, and so on. Often, we simply don't want to remember things as they actually happened. Though seemingly trivial, this presents a real problem in that we can never then learn from our individual or collective mistakes and push ourselves to do things differently.
In this respect, the Barbican's current exhibition, Progress, presents something of a novel solution. The exhibition is displaying the backlog of email correspondence, models, graphics and other materials that the Dutch architectural firm OMA has stored for each of its building projects. The exhibition is fascinating, with hundreds of bits of paper detailing everything from the technical development of projects to the personal dynamics of the team. In storing and then later reviewing these visual records, members of OMA have been able to look back objectively on how their projects evolved and get a realistic sense of why they experienced the successes or failures where they did.
While most forms of project evaluation and personal appraisal take the form of conventional surveys or interviews, perhaps all organisations, big and small, would benefit from practical exercises of collective reflection like those shown by OMA. Indeed, whether it's a message sent, an email received or a previous draft of a report written, spending time actively reviewing months-old materials could offer a remarkable insight into how we really think and act, and be the trigger we need to change our habits.
OMA archives at the Barbican