How neuropsychology and data can help transformation projects succeed

Businessman installed the light bulb into the brain

As I reflect on the challenges I have faced in the change projects I have driven as a business leader, most of them stem from not having given the people side of change enough priority. I focused on what needed to change to drive the desired business outcome and underestimated what it took to implement the behaviour change that delivered the outcome. 

Change happens as a result of people doing things differently, but changing behaviour is difficult. As change leaders, we often unconsciously assume that if the rationale for the change makes sense (to ourselves…), making the change itself is straightforward. However, it takes more to motivate the brain to make the change.

At FOCUSWRX, we use the Rider and Elephant metaphor to help simplify the understanding of how your brain influences your behaviour. The Rider represents the controlled/rational/conscious part of your brain. The Elephant represents the automatic/emotional/subconscious part of your brain. 

The Rider can think, or even fully believe, that we have a strong enough reason to change, but this is not enough for the whole brain to be motivated to make the change. The Elephant will do whatever it takes, to resist the use of precious energy in making a change. We need to feel that the behaviour change is important, not just think it is!

The people side of change

Change happens at the individual level, which is important to keep in mind when planning your transformation project. Better addressing the people side of change will increase the likelihood of success. 

This article describes how to better address the people side of change by making your change effort more brain-friendly. Making it more brain-friendly will make it easier for individuals to change behaviour and develop their change competency.  

You can add brain-friendliness to your change model of choice. This article suggests how by relating the recommendations to the Prosci ADKAR Model‘s five goals/outcomes of an individual’s successful change journey:

  1. Awareness of the business reasons for the change. 
  2. Desire to engage and participate in the change. 
  3. Knowledge about how to change. 
  4. Ability to realize or implement the change at the required performance level.
  5. Reinforcement to ensure change sticks. 

The Prosci ADKAR Model is a framework for understanding and managing individual change.

Create a sense of purpose

Awareness and Desire – the first two outcomes prescribed by the ADKAR Model – are achieved by creating a sense of purpose. However, that is much easier said than done!

Having a sense of purpose is related to having the intention to accomplish something that is meaningful to you and makes a positive difference for others. 

Awareness of the reason for the change is important, but it doesn’t necessarily create the desire to change. Communication that helps us rationally understand why change is needed satisfies the Rider. The most challenging part is creating the desire to change. Creating desire is challenging because what motivates us and what makes us resist change is very individual. 

Resistance comes from our perception of the change. Uncertainty/ambiguity, past negative experiences, or not satisfying our social needs will trigger the Elephant to launch our fight/flight/freeze threat response. It happens automatically and unconsciously. When this response is triggered, there are fewer resources (like oxygen and glucose) available to the Rider, which will reduce our ability to use our analytical thinking, creativity, focusing attention, self-control, planning and language. The effect is resistance to change. 

The desire to change comes from intrinsic motivation. For sustainable behaviour change, it is important to understand what will turn a “should do” into a “want to” or “love to”.

Hence engaging people at the individual level is necessary to ensure their fears and motivations are taken into account.

Help people learn how to change

Once people have the desire to change they need to know how. As outlined in the ADKAR Model, the Knowledge outcome is achieved when people have the information, training and education necessary to know how to change. Two aspects of learning how to change need to be addressed: Learning how to perform the new behaviour and learning how to change behaviour. 

In my experience, the emphasis is often put on providing training on what to do differently, but less so on how. The result is a gap between knowing and doing, which often times hinders or slows down change. 

Limit the amount of concurrent change

It is obvious that the bigger the change is, the harder it is to overcome. 

Practising new behaviour requires conscious effort, fully activating the Rider. The Rider consumes significant energy. If the change is too big, the Elephant will do all it can to resist it, because it wants to conserve energy. Therefore it is better to limit the amount of behaviour change you are asking an individual to make at once. 

Instead, consider sequencing behaviour changes starting with the most important behaviour first. You might see your change effort as a project with a start and an end date. But the reality is that change is constant. Hence developing the individual’s competency to change as part of every change you implement, will improve the agility of your organisation.  

Also, more and more tools are becoming available that provide data on behavioural insights. In our work to improve productivity, we use data from wearables and Microsoft MyAnalytics to identify the most impactful behaviour change. Using data enables you to measure cause and effect, which in turn helps you learn what works in your organisation. 

Once you have determined the new or changed behaviour make it small and specific. This gap between knowing and doing can be closed by involving people in very specifically specifying how they will perform the new behaviour. It is better to achieve a small win regularly, as this will help you build enough attention density to turn the new behaviour into a habit. 

Free up capacity for change

The ADKAR Model defines Ability as the ability to realise or implement the change at the required performance level. Implementing the change takes conscious effort, which means we need the Rider to have sufficient resources to give us the ability to change.

Scientific experiments show us that the different parts of our brain compete for its limited resources like oxygen and glucose. The Rider also has a limited, common resource. For example, using effort on its capability of self-control will limit the resources we have left for changing behaviour.

So if we want to maintain the capacity of the Rider to execute on the capabilities required to change behaviour; it is critical that we implement enabling behaviours to meet our physical needs, such as sleep, recovery, movement.  

Without our physical needs in place, our rider cannot function optimally and our elephant launches the threat response (defaulting behaviour to self-preservation, reactivity and heightened anger). When the elephant takes over, our ability to change is significantly hampered.

Our physical needs are often depleted without us being aware. However, our stress levels, sleep, recovery and movement can be measured and managed to give us a data-driven way of improving the effectiveness of our behaviour.  

Provide an enabling environment

The Riders ability to use its foundational capabilities is affected by our social needs as much as our physical needs. In the context of organisational change, our social needs are influenced by the work environment. Hence it is important that we create an enabling environment. In an enabling environment, people need to feel safe.

When the elephant detects a threat, his amygdala launches the fight/flight/freeze response. When this response is triggered, there are fewer resources (like oxygen and glucose) available to the rider. As soon as we enter a room with others or any form of group, our elephant is sensing whether we are safe or not.

For example, if we work in a zero failure work culture, we might not feel safe; as a mistake could have serious consequences (losing our reputation, losing our manager’s respect or even losing the job). In such a culture, our elephant’s threat response is constantly being triggered which will mean our brain’s performance will be sub-optimal and so will our ability to change.

The final outcome of the ADKAR model – Reinforcement – is the measurement of adoption, corrective actions and recognition of successful change. If the change is not reinforced in a way that creates an enabling environment it will have the opposite effect.

An enabling environment can be created by establishing a sense of belonging in the team (what could be done for each member to feel more belonging?); increasing the levels of autonomy (do people have accountability and enough decision making power?), and providing genuine recognition. Creating an enabling environment is arguably the most important objective we have as leaders. The culture we create through our behaviours can make or break an enabling environment.

Consider it a new system of functioning

Don’t just view your transformation as a project. Transformation is ongoing, and the capability to change should be developed like a muscle.

Developing your change muscle will increase both the personal and organisational agility and strengthen your ability to respond constructively to change. 

Addressing the people side of change, by making it more brain-friendly, creates the physiological conditions you need to make your transformation project successful.