Cats have a hunting strategy.* They move openly to the edge of their prey’s comfort zone, then freeze. The prey will initially be on guard, but still knows that escape is possible. The cat becomes an unmoving part of the background. When the prey relaxes – as it will eventually – the cat pounces. The prey will only survive if they react fast enough in the final split-second of attack. This hunting strategy is effective because the prey is hardwired to pay more attention to recent changes.
You and I blissfully go through life ignoring nearly all the sensory input we get. We’re very selective in our focus. Test this: During the past 10 minutes have you thought much about your heartbeat and breathing, the temperature of the air, the pressure on your feet or legs, or the color of the wall next to you?
We’re deeply wired to monitor for life-threatening risks, but there is a limit to how far out in time and space that you measure – that’s your “risk perimeter.” Your brain is fervently focusing only on changes that look like risks within your risk perimeter. Everything else is treated as safe noise.
Most of us have difficulty with the gaps between cause and effect. Devouring the second slice of pie makes my mouth happy now, but I will pay the price later. My father used to tell me, “It’s never pay me now or pay me later. It’s always pay me more later.”
We’re often surprised when a problem appears and we realize it’s been there all along. We missed the early signals because it didn’t look like a risk at the time, or we didn’t understand the connections between cause and effect.
How many difficult situations and wicked problems have you encountered and thought… “Why didn’t I/someone act on this earlier? It was right there in plain sight!” How many twisted, now-unsolvable-deal-with-the-consequences events are hovering nearby? Examples: national debt, unfunded pensions, serious-yet-preventable medication conditions like heart disease, automation eliminating whole classes of living-wage jobs, bitcoin consuming 2% of the global electricity supply and growing, nations edging to war….
Typical responses to these situations:
- “Yes, it’s a problem for somebody but not me right now. I have MUCH more urgent things going on that I have to deal with NOW.”
- “I see that it’s going to be a problem, but it’s not MY problem. I can’t do anything by myself, so I hope somebody is working on a solution.”
- “I will worry about that later. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Leaders can’t undo the past, but they are responsible for looking at trends and managing consequences for the future. Learn from the cat hunting strategy:
- Enlarge your risk perimeter, to give yourself more time to anticipate threats.
- Enlist others in dealing with de-risking actions earlier.
- Prioritize energy going into important work, not just urgent work.
*Hat tip to Patrick Cox (http://www.businessinsider.com/author/patrick-cox) for teaching me about cat hunting strategies.