Leaving your legacy and tacit knowledge sinks

These last 2 weeks, we have been swallowed up in the joy and excitement of the Obama presidency sweeping into town in Washington, with the Inauguration taking place early last Wednesday morning Australian time. Sadly, I was not one of the millions who woke early to watch the celebration, but I certainly caught up with all the news and exclamations of the event the next day.

 But I’m not about to write ‘another’ blog post loving the fact Obama is now in (even though I do) or discussing how his new agenda will push and create great change in this world (which I do hope it does). I actually want to focus on one, quite traditional and, I believe beautiful, act of the presidential handover. I’m talking about the letter the last president leaves ‘the next guy’ on the table in the oval office.


 (Picture from http://www.boston.com/bigpicture)

I first heard about this little tradition a few years back, and can’t quite remember the source although I believe it was in one of the Bill Clinton (auto?)biographies I was reading at the time. Certainly, I am taken by the romance of it all. Everything in the Whitehouse is packed up, the bare bones of what was the epicenter of the worlds most powerful economic and political engine for the moment exposed by the lack of staff, furniture and infrastructure. The oval office is left bare, with only the desk, chairs and basic furniture remaining. There are no artifacts of the former president left behind, except for one letter left on the oval office desk.

The letter is an informal handover, written by the previous President outlining tips/thoughts/feelings and general insight into what ‘the next guy’ is likely to face in the position. The Office of the US president is one that very few people (44 now) ever experience, and so the learning’s they pass on to each other in these letters would provide certainly an amazing view into the life they have just been elected to.

I think it’s just the romantic in me, but this provides a great lesson for us to learn in organisational life. Why isn’t it that we treat everything we do with such a legacy? Why is it that the great new blog you may have started at work, or the amazing project you just managed but now have to move on from is not captured in such a legacy and fashion. Shouldn’t’t it? Why don’t we write notes to the ‘next guy’ when we leave an organisation or position, and wish people all the best? And, most importantly, how do we capture what it ‘felt’ like to be doing the work we have just handed over and what can the incumbent to the role expect in their time in the chair? I know it’s a bit of a reach, and a bit far removed from the idea of tacit knowledge sinks and knowledge management – but I believe if we treated each role with a greater sense of the legacy we leave behind in our time served such knowledge management processes, procedures and databases may not be necessary. I think this is crucial in a new world where intrapreneurship and internal innovation is key. We deal in ambiguity, and handing over the not always implicit things we have learned in that time is a key requirement in the future.

How are you handling it? Have you written that letter yet?

2 thoughts on “Leaving your legacy and tacit knowledge sinks

  1. Steve –

    Great observation, and you make a very good point.

    In the presidential example, the incumbent has a number of months during which time they not only know that the hand-over time is coming, but they will also know who they are handing over to. I guess that this has both positive and negative impacts!

    In business, the situation can vary. We may or may not know when we are going; and we may or may not know who we are handing over to. However, in most cases, neither of these should stop us writing that letter. It doesn’t need to be left to the last day.

    When I departed Telstra last year, I had been planning for such an event progressively for some time, and had been taking one of the people in the team through a lot of the details of my job – both the philosophy and the procedures. When the departure time came, I recommended to my manager that she take over my role, which was how it came out. By then, she was reasonably well prepared to do so, too.

    We should all keep in mind that one day we may move on, and think about the needs of our eventual successor, as well as our organisation.

    – Keith

  2. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for the comment. I find it really interesting that you prepared your next in line before you left your post. This is an excellent example in leaving your legacy when you decide to move on. Finding someone internally who can step up into your role once gone, and then helping to prepare for that step by educating them on what has gone is a great demonstration of moving on and preserving the tacit knowledge as much as possible.

    Also, the very process of training up the next in line means often you remain personally connected much more than someone who simply writes that letter.

    Cheers and thanks for the comment.

Share your thoughts with a comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s