This new approach can help reduce ‘mind clutter’ to become more effective at work
‘Leaders need to have good attentional control to keep their mind on the task at hand. However, they also need to be able to disengage previous information to provide the opportunity for innovation’
In Business, forgetfulness is generally considered a bad thing. People who can’t remember names, faces, employee requests, or orders that need to be fulfilled, are going to run into difficulties.
However, an issue that is rarely discussed is that people with excellent memories can also have problems. Some people have the ability to remember everything, and the inability to forget nothing.
For example think of person who remembers everything a partner has ever said to them. This causes them to have difficulties such as forgiving the partner for harsh words spoken during arguments. The ability to forget is useful because it allows people to move on.
Forgetfulness is also relevant for business. Think of most of the business leaders you know in Hong Kong, or indeed around the world. While leaders need a good memory (or an excellent executive assistant), forgetting the past is also essential. If a leader has a strong memory for “the way things are done around here”, then these engrained rules and systems will prevent innovations. A good memory fills the brain with useless information, and that “brain space” is then unavailable for innovation.
Forgetting enables people to disengage and try new things. Having a good memory takes a lot of energy, and that means it can be difficult to focus on developing new ways of doing things. Leaders of mid-market businesses for example have to forget the engrained and successful ways of running a small business if they are to innovate the new systems and processes that lead to successful development to bigger business.
The relationship between working memory and fluid intelligence lies at the heart of the issue. Fluid intelligence is thinking through and solving novel problems and therefore it is crucial to an individual’s business success.
A general understanding has been that working memory is highly related to fluid intelligence. If you’re a middle manager and you want to increase your brain capacity, you can try some of the main brain training procedures which are aimed at improving working memory. Many claim that they improve fluid intelligence, but often they have mixed success.
However, there is now new academic research on the subject. A new theoretical model developed by Shipstead, Harrison and Engle in the journal Perspective on Psychological Science suggests that the relationship between working memory capacity and fluid intelligence isn’t as close as previous research has argued.
Whilst recognising that maintenance of memory is important for applied success such as focussing on a task, the latest research suggests that successfully achieving tasks requires two things – “disengagement”, and “maintenance” working hand in hand.
For those middle managers maybe reading this on the tram to Central, here is a real technique you can try.
What we call “disengagement” is essentially forgetting outdated and unnecessary information. At some point in time, the current way you do things, with procedures, systems, and rules for achieving outcomes will no longer be relevant or necessary. If you continue to hold all this information in your memory then it will interfere with the ability to generate new information. Disengagement from unnecessary information is critical for moving on and allowing the opportunity for new ways of doing things.
Constantly retrieving outdated information will interfere with current cognitions and the person may become fixated on old and unnecessary information. Quite simply, your mind becomes clogged up with things you do out for force of habit, and there is no room for anything else. Like one of the famous shop cats of Kowloon, you’ll keep on returning to your food bowl, even if the shop is closed and it is always empty, rather than look at the food bowl at the shop next door.
You also have “maintenance”. You need to keep on reminding yourself of the information you have at hand, just so you can remember it in a hurry. Just like a pilot preparing to take off from Chek Lap Kok, you should have a checklist which you remind yourself of regularly, even if you know it well. By continually reminding yourself of how to do things that memory stays fresh. It’s the reason why pilots continue to fly circuits even when they can do it with their eyes shut – it continually “maintains” that memory.
Theoretical models such as this have big applications and relevance for business, where getting tasks done is a combination of maintenance and disengagement. Leaders need to have good attentional control to keep their mind on the task at hand. However, they also need to be able to disengage previous information to provide the opportunity for innovation. Without all the “mind clutter” a leader can be alert to innovative ideas on how to improve organisational procedures, services and products, and be alert to current implementation issues.
For example, with the implementation of a new computer system essential to the development of a mid-market firm, the leaders would need to be alert to communicating the reasons why the new computer system will be of assistance, allow time for training, and also address any issues that arise. By disengaging from previous procedures, leaders can be fully in the present and allow themselves to assist employees and customers.
Also think about the idea of “business memory”. A business may be unable to forget a deeply unpleasant event such as an isolated case of fraud, but the engrained memories lead to an attempt to over-regulate to prevent the issue happening again.
This creates unnecessarily time consuming and burdensome procedures for employees, with many businesses creating self-induced red tape. In some cases, accepting that the event was an outlier and simply forgetting about it may be a better step forward than excessive preventative measures and cognitive load in leader’s minds.
So the next time you have a “seniors moment” and can’t remember a detail, consider that this may be adaptive. Not remembering certain details may be clearing your mind of unnecessarily clutter and allowing you to focus on the big picture.
You never know where and when innovative ideas might come to you. After reading this article, you may have already moved on to make way for the next innovative ideas.
Ben Walker is a post-doctoral research fellow and Chris Jackson is professor of management at UNSW Business School. This research was carried out with help from Pitcher Partners, who are thought leaders in the Australian mid-market and partners in the ARC Linkage Grant. Julian Lorkin also contributed to the article