Neuroscience innovations for change management
Updated: Apr 23
Companies are continually in a state of change. But change remains a challenge and few companies navigate the process and achieve the outcomes they want. Despite the evolution of change management practice McKinsey and others estimate that about 70% of change initiatives still fail to meet the objectives upon which they were justified. Change struggles exert a heavy human and financial toll on organisations and change failures have an unacceptable cost.
We believe change management is due for some innovation and that success can be significantly improved by leveraging neuroscience and virtual world rehearsal that prime individual employees, organisations and culture to change, literally overnight.
Organisations are collectives of teams working together to accomplish a goal (or goals). Organisations are complex and influenced by the people, culture, and time, in which they are developing. One of my associates describes them as large, complex, messy, probabilistic goal oriented systems.
We know organisation change must occur in order for there to be growth and to respond to environmental changes (e.g. new technology, economic downturn or new competitors in the market.) But organisations resist change. Companies continue to do as they’ve always done, even when it seems irrational to do so.
These widespread difficulties and many fold reasons have at least one common root: people. And people, when dealing with change, are predictably unpredictable. Managers and teams may view change differently. However, for both groups change is rarely sought after nor welcomed. It is perceived as disruptive and intrusive. It is expected to upset the balance. Yet change management mostly focuses upon systems and process and is rarely about effectively uncovering and changing people’s mind-sets, emotions, culture, beliefs and values so they support change.
Scientists have been critical of the change management field too. They have written that the Change Literature has been characterised by theoretical propositions and homey advice with minimal empirical evidence or without any supporting research at all (Pettigrew et al, 2001). Change management isn’t working as it should.
Are you ready for a new paradigm? We need to help people and organisations reprogram themselves. That sounds strange but it will make sense once you think about it.
Over the millennia, nature and Darwinian selection have developed a system that enabled humans to learn tasks very quickly and make the associated thinking processes become automatic. Once a person, or group of people, has learned a way of completing a task that produces a satisfactory outcome (e.g. driving a car, solving a problem, or making a decision), it seeks to automate the process (i.e. make it an automatic unconscious behavioural habit) to conserve energy and save time. It does this by imprinting automated neural pathways.
These automated neural pathways don’t normally change easily - especially when in most contexts they are useful and deliver desired outcomes. Seen from an evolutionary perspective, ‘resistance to change’ is really a function of how the brain has wired itself. ‘Resistance’ is simply an old ‘neural imprint’ that has been learned and reinforced (by success) over years. The automated circuit and the behaviour pattern run outside of our conscious awareness and dominate (often distorting) our perception.
Unfortunately, no amount of classroom readiness training or conscious exhortation will affect these circuits. Why? Because the information that comes from classroom training does not reach these automated circuits. Without getting too technical, the theoretical classroom information gets stored in the wrong place; it gets stored in the auditory cortex close to your left ear. The circuits we want to change are held in a different spot, behind your upper forehead in your prefrontal cortex. That’s where plans for action are stored.
It is for those reasons that most #changemanagement and behaviour management interventions fail – they are focused in the wrong place.
You’ve probably heard about neuroplasticity from the field of medical science and the mainstream works of people like documentary co-author and producer Todd Sampson (Sampson, Todd 2014, 2015) and best selling author Normal Doidge (Doidge, Norman 2007 & 2015). For example, in the medical space, it’s the field that is getting serious stroke patients talking and mobile again quickly. Beyond that it is being employed to increase adaptability, improve the resilience, accelerate learning, memory and other mental performance of people who were functional to begin with.
#neuroplasticity is an umbrella term that refers to the potential that the brain has to reorganise by creating new neural pathways to adapt, as it needs. Research over the last 50 years (Rakic, P. 2002) has shown many aspects of the brain remain changeable (or "plastic") into adulthood (Pascual-Leone A.;et al., 2005). This notion contrasts with the previous scientific consensus that the brain develops during a critical period in early childhood, then remains relatively unchangeable (or "static") during adult life (Pascual-Leone A.; et al. 2011).
Neuroplastic change can occur at small scales, such as physical changes to individual neurons, or at whole-brain scales, such as cortical remapping. Ample evidence shows that behaviour, environmental stimuli, thought, and emotions contribute to experience dependent neuroplastic change or reorganisation of the brain. This has significant implications for development, learning, intuition, memory, and adaption to change. The human brain, and thus an organisation of people, is not hardwired.
The NSA (National Science Association of USA) funded academic research into applications of neuroplasticity in business - specifically accelerated learning and change management. The work was published in the form of peer reviewed papers in the late 1990’s and up to 2011 (DiBello, Lia; et al.,1987-2014). That research has also been written about in the US media (Walsh, J., Chamberlain, E.S., 1998; GSUC, 1997; NTI, 1993; Jiminez, R. 1999; Bryan, J., 2004; Bower, B., 2004).
Some of the team from our partner Workplace Technologies Resources, Inc. (WTRI) worked on that research. Commercial applications of neuroplasticity break the paradigms about what is possible for change and performance improvement. You can use neuroscience to help you:
drive quantum shifts in business performance
rehearse and accelerate learning in high stakes contexts (e.g. first response, safety or project management)
solve the business performance problems that your team perceive as ‘insoluble’
make innovation a fast and reliable process
cascade high velocity changes in culture of practice
unite disparate groups with competing agendas