Why Neuroscience in the Workplace?

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.

Awareness vs. Implementation: New Organizational Culture

“Customer care is still interpreted differently by each and every person you talk to, but I strongly believe it holds the key for our success, not just in sales but in innovation and market leadership…We have a great team, resources, and the support of our CEO but the biggest challenge remains dissemination, integrating this new approach on the cellular level, getting to every last employee…” Director of Customer Care, security software industry

Getting individuals and teams to implement a new culture is typically one of the hardest challenges change agents in organizations can take on. Values and response patterns that are associated with people’s culture run deep, they have emotional ties and are usually invisible and subconscious. This case study, taken from KCI’s new book, The Art and Science of Changing People Who Don’t Want to Change, is a great example.

Chris, the Director of Customer Care, was trying to get the new culture to take greater hold in several more “resistant” departments. It’s important to note that resistance isn’t necessarily a negative behavior, nor is saying “no” to change. You know resistance is there if people are not implementing the new culture in a lasting way. When we met Chris, he was well ahead of the curve in terms of designing an effective change effort. He had been collecting and disseminating success stories and case studies his team collected in working with his company’s clients. He rightfully believed, that if people experience the new culture through examples, they would be much more likely to implement the new culture. He didn’t think about it (and was mostly ignorant to) the science behind his approach, but much of the approach he intuitively chose to take was aligned with the latest brain science research.

The challenge for Chris, as it often is with cultural integration, is that while people became aware of the expected change effort, most still didn’t adopt the new culture into practice. Brain science research provides excellent guidance on how to overcome this common change-related challenge. Here are a few examples of where science meets cultural implementation:

  • Define the change in experience terms: many organizations talk about the new culture in knowledge terms, but knowledge does not translate into practice. Collecting examples and sharing stories, like Chris did, is an excellent way to avoid the knowledge trap. But note – in order to make sure people are interpreting the meaning you want them to assign to stories and examples as a way to get them to understanding the new culture, the stories and examples must come from them. One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is trying to “feed” examples. Let people bring the examples to you. That way you’ll have the opportunity to see where they are at.
  • The best way to adopt something new is to teach it to others: in our experience, a change team, like the one Chris was heading, is of great value. It becomes even more effective if the change is designed with clear dissemination system through team managers. Once direct managers in the organization practice and reinforce a clear new culture (clear in experience terms) with their direct team, change is applied seamlessly. The important thing is to make sure managers get the new culture implicitly (they know what it means in action, not just how to talk about it) AND that managers are provided with a way to disseminate that experience of the new culture to their direct teams. Sharing examples is a great way to go about it, provided you follow the first principle included above.
  • Tie change to behavior and application: many change efforts are done in the sky, with nothing anchoring them to the ground. Top leadership talks about the change, decisions are made and communicated from the top, and the hope is that people will notice the change and, if the instructions are clear, people will be able to apply them. The trouble with this approach is that it makes a great foundation for awareness, but not for application. The reason change needs to be led by direct managers, is because they are in a position to continuously tie the new, sometimes lofty-seeming, values or culture to specific actions, behaviors and responses. It’s this feedback loop that makes it possible for people to adopt something into practice.

“This process put our vision into practice…it was as if until that point we were talking two very different languages and suddenly words that before didn’t make sense were finally clear.” Click here to learn more about what it takes to design change efforts that are aligned with brain science.

If There is a Problem With an Internal Process it is NEVER the Fault of the Human Capital, It is Always Something in the Delivery Model

I can’t tell you how often I hear the above claim. For the last twenty years this notion, that systems and processes are responsible for the success or failure of business, has been one of the foundations of organizational development.

If you want to successfully manage a team, make sure your structure, procedures and systems are aligned with your goal, and success will be yours. Going through a strategic change? You should analyze and structure all processes and systems to support the change, and if you do, any initiative will meet your stakeholders’ expectations.

This, of course, makes perfect sense. Organizational Development experts spent the last thirty years or so studying which structures and systems are needed in order to achieve goals successfully. In addition, systems such as data management systems and communication systems, are very easily associated with specific desired results. If only people used the systems, processes, and models correctly, every business would have achieved their goals.

It makes sense, and yet we are living at a time that proves that it’s far from enough. The models, systems and processes have been nearly perfected at this point. The tools developed by Six Sigma, for example, are truly excellent. TQM, which in time grew into Six Sigma, was a critical approach when it was originated because it studied the components of achieving desired results. Six Sigma should be used to understand what needs to be, but it is lacking in one significant way: how to get there.

Six Sigma is a great example because it shows that even when organizations are given the blueprint for success, unless they know how to build from that blueprint, success will not follow. In 2008 a report indicated that 60% of Six Sigma’s initiatives failed. It became clear that one of the key components needed in addition to the right blueprint was a guide to implementation.

It turns out that if there is a problem with an internal process it is TYPICALLY  the outcome of the way human capital learns, plans, interacts and executes.

Here are a few examples of how human capital gets in the way of successful strategic initiatives, even with an excellent blueprint in hand:

  • Leadership is blind to the solution, so that even when the right solution is presented, it is not followed
  • Leadership disagrees on critical aspects of the problem or the solution
  • Internal politics are the foundation for sabotage or conflicting efforts
  • Leadership is coherent and clear about the solution but “line managers” and teams resist applying the changes that are required in order to meet the guidelines of the blueprint

The list goes on. It is varied and specific, with unique shades and colors that match each team and organization differently. It’s NOT about fault, in fact most teams are very eager to be part of their organization’s success. But most frequently, results are not met because the human capital is not responding in the way that will lead to the execution of desired outcomes.

The Science of Integration Part II

What makes physics or medicine more of a science than integration of change?

Hoping that facilitating change will ever be as predictable as the results of scientific manipulations in sciences such as physics is probably a long shot, and likely not necessarily an exciting thought. But getting integration efforts to meet scientific standards of sciences like medicine would be a great achievement, one we should, and finally can, aspire to.

Medicine does not have the predictability level of physics but, diagnosis aside, there is a lot we can do to help build healthier people because of what we do know. When it comes to change, however, there is very little literature that can be used to match pain with remedy, especially when it comes to getting people to apply, execute, integrate, and implement needed adjustments.

Just think of the last time you had to get a manager or a team to change a certain behavior. Most change agents (professional or in leadership positions) often don’t realize the forces working against them. Not only are you fighting against people’s lack of commitment to cooperate, you are battling people’s very ability to change. Here change agents typically struggle, drawing on intuition in the absence of any  deliberate system that can lead to predictable results.  Without this type of predictability, how can we expect integration to be a science?

It will take a while for change to be a science, but we’d like to believe we are well on our way. Here are two of our criteria:

1. Predictability: For change to be a science, we should have very high predictability from effort to result. The elusive factor here is often the way people respond, hence predictability will depend on our ability to facilitate change in people.

2. Lasting effects: Change that is here for one minute and then there the next is not tangible enough to be considered a “result.” For change to be a science, adjustments should be consistent and lasting.

Which criteria would you use to evaluate if change is a science?

The Science of Integration Part I

What do cultural integration, change application and execution of skill acquisition all have in common?

The critical step before results: Integration is perhaps the most important stage of any change effort. A post-merger integration study by Merrill Corporation in 2009 reveals that 66% of leaders start addressing post-merger integration issues early on in the M&A process. Why is integration so important?

As Nolan Bushnell once put it: “Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.”

People may know what they should do in order for change to lead to desired results, but if they are not applying it, we haven’t done much.

Low success rates: The second commonality here is that we are doing pretty poorly when it comes to integration, application and execution of newly acquired skills. The following section is taken from The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management (Scott Keller and Carolyn Aiken, McKinsey and Company, 2008):

“In 1995, John Kotter published research that revealed only 30 percent of change programs are successful. Fast forward to 2008. A recent McKinsey & Company survey of business executives indicates that the percent of change programs that are a success today is… still 30%. The field of ‘change management,’ it would seem, hasn’t changed a thing.”

But something has changed, which leads us to the next factor that integration, application and execution have in common.

Have you ever been to a meeting that discusses execution and application when at least you (if not everyone else in the room) know that things will not be applied? Have you been part of strategic meetings that focus on needed changes that are not translated into execution? Science has finally caught up with desired results. The answer comes from brain science.

Shifting from point A to point B requires a deeper change: Studies show that while 81% of professionals say “yes” to change, only approximately 10% then take action to support it (HRIQ worldwide survey, NRG Publication, 2011). Integration typically requires people to change the way they change. Think about it this way, if people could easily adjust they would only need to understand what they need to change and – boom! – they would be there. Unfortunately, studies show that 90% of people are blocked from making needed changes because, even if they agree with and seem to understand what is expected of them, they still don’t implement change.

The bottom line is, people are missing something, without which integration, application and execution of new skills are going to stay out of reach. As tempting as it may be to look at M&As, strategic initiatives, training efforts and other change-related efforts as systemic efforts, we are likely to keep seeing 30% success rates unless we provide people with a new foundation.

Next Week: More about this scientific-based change system that is already turning integration into a science.


What an 8-Year-Old Can Teach You About Getting People to Changee to change

Let’s face it, unless people you manage perform their job perfectly and unless they are excellent changers (that accounts for 10% of the population btw), you are likely to need to guide those people to change. Why? Because unless people know how to change, they are not able to make the specific adjustments you need them to make to perform the job well.

Unfortunately, we are educated out of knowing how to change from a very young age.

Children learn (which means developing new abilities and skills) through self initiated experience. The truth is, we all change that way, except, when children are too young, we typically don’t expect them to learn any other way. Think of common skills children acquire: eating with a spoon or riding a bike. Could you imagine how long it would take to teach a baby to eat with a spoon if we modeled it? “Here honey, look at mommy…now you do it…”

By the time kids are 8, they are already frequently on their way to losing that ability to change. Simple things that come from understanding how the brain works can help you support getting other people to change:

Natural change patterns: Language in school is still taught in fractions: kids learn grammar, vocabulary, spelling etc. It’s much more interactive today than it was 100 years ago but still, teaching is falling behind. Universities such as UC Berkeley, as well as language learning software such as Rosetta Stone, use experience-based training models and are far more effective. For people to acquire change, be it learning a new language or developing a new skill, learning has to be done in the way that is natural for the brain. The more associations and relationships the brain can create, the more examples and case studies the brain identifies with the needed change, the more likely it is to acquire the new skill or behavior. Instead of repeating your expectations from your team, try creating variety and sharing many different examples instead.

Experience based: knowledge in the brain is stored and retrieved as knowledge. Experience, on the other hand, is more readily actionable. Have you ever tried lecturing to an 8-year-old about why what they just did isn’t okay? If your speech goes on for more than a very few minutes, you may get a glassy look and a child who tries to figure out what you want to hear so that the speech will be over as soon as possible.  When we want a child to learn a new behavior, it is best to get them to practice the new behavior, not to go on talking to them about it. Same principle applies to your team.

Self Initiated: My child attends Science Club, and this year he is competing on the Rock team. In previous years the group’s coach recited the names of the rocks and asked the kids to repeat after her: “This is Pumice, it is an igneous rock…” This year the group’s coach played the game of “Hangman” with the kids: “Find the rock: _ _ m_ _ e …is it Metamorphic, Igneous, or Sedimentary?” If you had to make an intuitive guess, which approach do you think worked better in terms of retention and retrieval?

The brain changes in a very specific way. If we follow the brain’s “rules of engagement” we can generate new skills that can be acquired and applied in a lasting way. Click here to check out KCI’s Acquisition System, following the the five stages the brain follows for acquiring change.

When Your Organization is Undergoing M&A, Do You Think About Cultural Integration?

“Ask any executive or manager if they’ve seen a project, acquisition, startup, etc. come crashing down (or at least significantly underperform) because of people or culture issues. Their answer undoubtedly is , “Absolutely! I see it all the time.” You would think more attention would be paid to people and culture. It’s simply not the case.” Lori Dernavich

Trying to merge two very different cultures will result in significant attrition and an increased probability of failure. There’s nothing new there. It makes one wonder why companies are not investing more in cultural integration as part of the process?

Unfortunately, decision makers have had good reason to avoid investing in cultural integration. Is cultural integration important? Sure, there are numerous studies proving it is. Is it important to do it as early as the DD stage? Sure, without a doubt.

But I wonder why, if it is that important, don’t we see every M&A out there insisting on focusing on cultural integration. There are some pretty brilliant leaders out there after all. Why don’t most leaders insist on including this aspect in their decision?

I’d like to propose it’s not just ignorance or insufficient foresight on the part of leaders, and that change experts are only now starting to keep up with their side of the deal. Only a few years back, Six Sigma, one of the most reliable tools out there when it comes to assessing processes and cultures, reported a 70% failure rate, attributed directly to the integration stage. I can’t begin to tell you how many change efforts, large and small, I have seen fail during the implementation stage. It’s only in recent years, now that we better understand what it takes for people to shift from doing X to doing Y in a lasting way, that we are starting to see better success rates when it comes to integration. I firmly believe that, while we used to talk about “culture integration,”  the systems we had to meet this goal were misrepresented. With the tools we had at the time, we could frequently, at best, target sharing our assessment of the two cultures with the leaders of the M&A, try to tell them on how important it is for them to make needed changes, and then pray they listen. My point is, we didn’t have access to the science that supports the “integration” part.

Unfortunately, cultural assessments can be done fairly efficiently, and potential areas of conflict can be identified and mitigation plans recommended fairly early, but without getting people to make needed changes, well intentioned remedies die on the vine, or get pushed out and addressed only after some of the damage has already set in.

As with many technological developments in history, I believe science has finally advanced enough to answer some tough questions. New developments in brain science give us keen insight into what it would really take to address the integration part of change.

  • To understand integration, we need to understand change on the individual level: at the end of the day cultures don’t change or adjust, people do. For integration to take place, we have to stop treating people en masse and start focusing on how individuals change.
  • To understand integration, we need to understand brain change: adopting new values requires reinforcing actual new neural pathways in the brain. To get people to adopt new cultures, we must design change efforts to follow the requirements of creating new neural pathways.

With the right change system, M&As have a much greater chance for success. Instead of trying to force leaders to see the importance of cultural integration as part of M&As, how about designing change systems that are so good that leaders would be insane not to use them?

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