Every Business Needs a Graveyard

Patrick O’Shaughnessy says one of his firm’s most important assets is their research graveyard. Carried by a mantra of “learn, build, share, repeat,” OSAM constantly experiments with what they think could move their business forward. The successes get implemented and the failures get a headstone in the graveyard. Memorializing makes all the difference. 


Over the years, the size of the graveyard has become a matter of pride. As Patrick says, “The best way to avoid errors in the future is to have made most of the major types of errors in the past. Said differently, the only way to get good at research is to do a lot of research.”


Individual memory is valuable. It’s how we apply the little lessons we pick up along the way. Institutional memory is critical. It’s how we network our experiences with others’ to focus on making collective progress. O’Shaughnessy’s research graveyard is a highly structured version of that institutional memory network. 


In our small groups, teams, divisions, companies, etc. we should consider where our own graveyards of old ideas are. “Best ideas” are easy enough to find – but where do we store the skeletons? Where do assess why they didn’t work? Worse – where are the unmarked graves?


Progress comes from intelligent experimentation. If we’re willing to make a record for future reference, including our missteps, dead ends, and “we tried that once before” campaigns, we can build a library of ideas. Beyond the benefits of consultation, the research graveyard also signals to everyone in the organization that failed ideas aren’t bad ideas. Instead of hiding from or never discussing them, we can benefit from keeping them nearby.


In this way, institutional memory and culture are closely tied together. A research graveyard is a big step towards curating a living history as well as creating safe spaces for experimentation.