Leaders, Empty Your Cache

Is your cup empty or too full? This expression refers to a well-known Zen teaching story of a "wanna be" with a mug so filled to the brim there's no room for fresh tea. "Knowing it all," like "Ain't been invented here," gets in the way of acquiring new information or skills.

Relying on old information can have adverse impacts. For example, when crossing a road — even if you checked and the street was clear just 30 seconds ago — a "suddenly there" vehicle can still hit you. Don't get caught believing what you thought was true some time ago is still accurate now. It's a dynamic world as worker morale changes, the market swings, customer attention pendulums.

In a similar vein, those who work with the Internet may have discovered their Web browser can get clogged with old data, to the point it doesn't show updated information. The old has blocked the new from coming through. This can be a "cache" problem. Designed to save time, a cache is a temporary location where a browser saves webpages on your computer in order to reload the same address quickly. But when a site is continually updating — akin to changes in a fluid company — caching can lead to seeing stale data, then mistakenly believing it's fresh.

The solution is simple on a computer: periodically empty the Web browser's cache with a mouse click. Similarly, leaders should also "empty their cache" if they want to make best decisions and strategies that are based on most-current pictures. Here are common leadership cache problems — and what to do about them:

  • Is what you think you see all there really is? Am I missing something potentially important? First, develop a "most-resistant strategy." I.e., find those managers and workers who vocally or quietly dig in their heels to changes you want to make. Privately poll them, either individually or as a small group (be cautious about the latter), to hear their fears and concerns. In addition to getting needed info, this also helps promote buy-in.

    When they're talking, write down what they say. This sends the message that you're listening, that you value their thoughts — and it takes the pressure off you to make continuous eye contact, especially with "pointed" communications. If you find yourself getting defensive, take notes, reminding yourself to consider these later when you feel more calm. Above all, don't shut off the stream of feedback because 1) it may be accurate, and strong leaders always welcome even bittersweet reality, and 2) you don't want to send the message that honest feedback is forbidden. Squelching critical feedback will shut down the flow of needed information you receive and also diminish leadership credibility.

    Second, lower your LOAR (Level of Accepted Risk). Ask yourself, what am I assuming or taking for granted? What have I accepted as unchangeable because of past inertia? Where are the limits I don't question, the caved-into governors on our speed of change? Again, a task group of truth-tellers (Yes-people need not apply) can be a critical resource here. Find those who are capable of enlightening the emperor he has no clothes.

  • Are previous cultural "realities" blocking us from change? Update older company self-images. Even though a strategy didn't work several years ago does not mean it wouldn't now be eff ective if updated and applied to our current situation.

    You and others within your company are likely now more battle-tested and capable than 10 years ago. Staff may have changed. So you may be able to tackle difficult challenges that held sway in the past.

    Consider the "Wash it off " strategy. One of my martial arts instructors remarked that, when looking in the mirror each morning, he mentally washed off his old way of performing techniques because, "If I do the throw today the same way I did it yesterday, in twenty years I'll be doing it the same as yesterday." Best leaders consciously wash off old habits that only worked to an "acceptable" degree.

  • Are biases limiting us from going to the next level? For example, if you define ergonomics only as redesign and retooling, this blocks you from even considering behavioral methods for workers better fitting with their tasks.

    Similarly, I've heard some proclaim, "If it can't be measured, it doesn't exist." This limiting attitude makes the flawed assumption that right now we have all measurement tools that will ever be available. Carried further, this bias would deny that quarks and other subatomic particles existed a hundred years ago, as then there wasn't technology to track these.

    Strong leaders employ a wide array of measurement devices, including their own read of small cues, as Miyamoto Musashi wrote, "perceiving those things that cannot be seen." Similarly, there are remarkably eff ective techniques for preventing slips/trips/falls and strains/sprains that are too small to externally monitor.

  • Is there technology for change we don't know about? Every day, there are numerous scientific breakthroughs. And other staff may have access to information that hasn't yet reached you. Be sure to benchmark with those in diff erent sectors, as well as reading/listening to industry competitors. Oft en, in interviews, leaders will reveal useful information they wouldn't otherwise dispense.

    Also poll within. "Is there technology we're not currently using that might help us break through to a higher level?"

By emptying their cache, best leaders refresh themselves, their view of workers, competitors, customers, and the world. And craft new and best-fit solutions for critical decision points.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Robert Pater is Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates and MoveSMART®. To contact him, email rpater@movesmart.com.

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