Fire works on the Fourth of July reinforce collective memory.

Fireworks on the Fourth of July reinforce collective memory.

National Holidays reflect a form of collective memory. Collective memory is a shared pool of information held by two or more members of a group. That late night when the team sat around eating pizza and solving an intractable problem is a collective memory. The family vacation you took last year is a collective memory. Collective memory support the effectiveness of teams. Collective memories can bind team a together, leverage a broader team-memory and attack complex activities.

Unfortunately, I have spent more than a few nights in the office eating cold pizza while solving an intractable problem with my team. Picture several sweaty people clustered around someone’s screen reading code, discussing how it should work and how we might test the solution. In these situations there is always some Damocles Sword hanging above our head to add a bit of pressure. While I do not think any of us really ever wanted to spend that sort of evening together, the story and our perceptions of the memory defined who we were as a team.

As we would get together after the event and retell the story each person’s experience was different enough that each person could fill in other’s gaps, add enhancements or provide queues to help each remember more than they would have remembered. This is called cross-cueing. The collective memory exceeds the memory any of the individuals in the group. Interestingly, the telling, collective remembering and re-telling helps refine the story as the team’s culture and outlook changed.

Everyone on a team has different capabilities, skills and specialized bit of knowledge. Collective memory allows the team to distribute the information to different individuals and to know that it can be “recalled” when needed. This is called transactive memory. Agile techniques reference the concept of specializing generalists. The all team members have a central core of capabilities, skills and knowledge. Individuals have areas of specialized knowledge that collective memory allows to be leveraged when needed. Enter the specializing generalist.

Whether a nation, an organization or a team, all groups have a collective memory that binds them together and allows them to be something larger than a group of individuals. National holidays like the Fourth of July are both a reflection of a collective memory and a mechanism to reinforce and refine a collective memory.