June 27, 2006

What Can We Learn from Cognitive Science about Successful Organizational Change?

Everyone knows that change is hard. If we can't get people to change their day to day behaviour in order to mitigate and/or reduce the risk of life threatening health problems, it's no wonder that creating change in the workplace is so difficult.

In the article, Neuroscience of Leadership published in strategy+business Summer 2006, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz state that:
It is now clear that human behavior in the workplace doesn't work the way many executives think it does. That in turn helps explain why many leadership efforts and organizational change initiatives fall flat.

Altweibersommer - Creative Commons - Attribution Non-Commercial ShareAlikeTapping in to the advances in neuroscience can shed some light on why change can be so difficult. There are several key findings in neuroscience research described in the article along with some great examples. Here's a quick summary of some of the points:

1. Change is pain.

2. Carrots or sticks don't work particularly well.

Remember, how well the advice "walk 30 minutes per day, reduce your risk of heart attack," actually works for most people.

3. Persuasion doesn't work in the way we typically practice it as managers.

4. The power of attention is one key to understanding change.

What we focus on matters a lot. You might say that it's all that matters. Our brains are reshaped by what we think about often. We don't just see things differently - there a physiological difference in the brain that results in us seeing the world in a particular way.
Attention continually reshapes the patterns of the brain. Among the implications: People who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through different sets of connections, than do people who don't practice the specialty. In business, professionals in different functions - finance, operations, legal, research and development, marketing, design, and human resources - have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing the world the same way.

5. Expectations matter a great deal.

People's expectations of what they experience can impact their experiences - remember the placebo effect. I've always thought that it would be amazing if we could increase or tap into the placebo effect even more and just make things better through mind power.
Cognitive scientists are finding that people's mental maps, their theories, expectations, and attitudes, play a more central role in human perception than was previously understood. ... Two individuals working on the same customer service telephone line could hold different mental maps of the same customers. The first, seeing customers only as troubled children, would hear only complaints that needed to be allayed; the second, seeing them as busy but intelligent professionals, would hear valuable suggestions for improving a product or service.

Corn Maze - Creative Commons - Attribution Non-Commercial ShareAlike
This notion of user expectations and change is one of the central tenets of "Who Moved My Cheese?" Spencer Johnson tells the story of how Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw, and their experiences and expectations, as they move through the maze in search of new cheese.

(cc) Photo by Jordon

How, then, would you go about facilitating change? [my emphasis] The impact of mental maps suggests that one way to start is by cultivating moments of insight. Large-scale behavior change requires a large-scale change in mental maps. This in turn requires some kind of event or experience that allows people to provoke themselves, in effect, to change their attitudes and expectations more quickly and dramatically than they normally would.

6. Insights are personal and necessary. Being told is not the same as discovering it yourself.

Employees need to develop new mental models themselves through insight. They need to have a "ah ha" moment when they connect the dots.
The help-desk clerk who sees customers as children won't change the way he or she listens without a moment of insight in which his or her mental maps shift to seeing customers as experts. Leaders wanting to change the way people think or behave should learn to recognize, encourage, and deepen their team's insights.

7. New insights need to be revisited often over time to take root.

For new insights to take root, they need to revisited. Attention must be focused on new ideas repeatedly for a long enough of time.

Managers Should Focus on Two Things

First they should use solution focused questioning that helps people come up with new ways of looking at the situation or thinking about it.

Rather than focusing the brain on "why something doesn't work" focus on what would make it work. I often ask at team meetings "how could we make this work?" whenever people start pointing out all the barriers or reasons something can't work. What would it take for 24/7 service?

Secondly, they should use the power of attention wisely. Managers can try to repeatedly bring the person's attention around to the behaviour or action that is desired.

Having one conversation isn't enough.

Perhaps you are thinking, "This all sounds too easy. Is the answer to all the challenges of change just to focus people on solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their insights?" Apparently, that's what the brain wants.

As managers we need to think more like coaches. Coaches are good at helping players see the game in new ways and change their behaviour. Great coaches demonstrate a technique or a play so others can visualize it. Describing how to do a play is not the same as showing it. Then it's your turn to try out the new move. At first it is hard - it is pain. Often after about 3 or 4 minutes, the coach may stop the play and ask the players to focus on a particular aspect of the lesson. You can see dramatic improvements after this refocusing exercise. As the coach you're saying "pay attention - turn your mind to this". Whatever you're coaching gets repeated week after week and laddered up to increasing levels of difficulty ... weaving together new brain pathways from fragile filments into a thick twisted rope. What was hard at first, becomes second nature.

It's essential to hone your own communication skills as a manager and a "mind" coach, if you want to facilitate change in a organization. What you say and how you say it can have a major impact on whether someone focuses on solutions, develops new insights or simply retains their old mindset.

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