We live in an exciting age. Until about ten years ago, scientists didn’t have the conditions and equipment needed in order to study the complexity of systems in the brain related to change. In recent years, brain science advanced at an exponential rate. After getting a widespread foothold in areas like emotional and physical recovery from trauma, the developments are now feeding into business. For the first time, organizations have access to change models that can scientifically address the “people” end of change: change management models that are as strong and valid as models in economics or technology.
In 2008, S. Keller and C. Aiken examined the success rates of change efforts over the years . In 1995 about 70 percent of all major changes in organizations failed. In 2008 the picture hadn’t changed much: “…the percent of change programs that are a success today is… still 30 percent .” For businesses these numbers are obviously concerning, and not just because the success rates of change efforts are low. More important is the fact that success rates haven’t improved over the years: “The field of ‘change management,’ it would seem, hasn’t changed a thing.” In all likelihood, this lack of progress is not due to change experts and leaders not trying hard enough. Rather, something about how we were designing change was off.
Cobb’s Paradox (Stated by Martin Cobb in 1995, who at that time worked for the Secretariat of the Treasury Board in Canada) made the challenge beautifully clear: “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure – so why do they still fail?”
Until recently, leaders had to depend mostly on guesswork and observation to answer the following very important questions:
- Why do people resist changing, and how do we get them to overcome resistance?
- Why is it so difficult for people to adopt new routines?
- What can be done to overcome trust issues?
- How can people overcome the fear of the unknown?
Brain science creates an opportunity to look at, for example, the micro of changing even the most difficult individuals and the macro of changing entire cultures, with new brilliant scientific glasses. It means we can test what works and what doesn’t, creating the predictability needed in order to turn change from a mostly failing effort to a science. The field of neuroscience is growing, and most scientists will tell you that new developments in this area are raising more questions than answers. It is a positive sign. It means we finally dare ask more difficult questions, and it’s exciting that, though we are only scratching the surface regarding the applications of brain science to business, the developments are significant and highly applicable.