The brain-friendly approach to change


December 2018

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Mads Ingemann Herskind

The article was originally written by Laust Lauridsen.

Lots of organisational resources are put into planning and managing change. Most of them are wasted. For a simple reason: Change cannot be controlled. Try, and you will fail. Change is change. For your next change challenge, try this simple recipe: Frame the space and give people the freedom to unfold the potential within this space.

Well, some change can be controlled, mainly on a functional or structural level. We can change it. What is much tougher to change is us or me – how we act and interact on a behavioural and cultural level. Anyway, “we try, and we try” to implement, execute and deliver change – formulating winning strategies, running catchy campaigns, putting new posters on the wall, educating change ambassadors, consulting change gurus and so on. But people just don’t get it, do they? The Brain-Friendly Approach offers a new perspective: Make change easy, fun and rewarding. Move the game of change from pressure to pleasure, from push to pull, from tools to toys.

Read the first article about the Brain-Friendly Approach

From change pressure to change pleasure

There is a constant pressure on us to do things smarter, faster and better. A pressure many of us have internalised so effectively that a few minutes without action can make us restless and send us spiralling into a bad conscience. Business means busy-ness, right? Think fast, react fast, move fast. Change gurus agree: Either you become agile or you die. It’s pure evolutionary business – survival of the fastest and fittest. Rapid change with its uncertainty and restlessness is part of life@work these days.

What if most of this pressure could be turned into pleasure? What if change was more like a game we were playing and trying to win?

From change push to change pull

Classic change management is a top-down, outside-in exercise that pushes the organisation through defined phases of change. It is very mechanical and structural, a strange blend of the carrot and stick, more of a sales process than a learning process, logical and meaningful on the systemic level, but disturbing and often meaningless on the behavioural level. It is rolled out as a push, with more said than done, fighting the corporate immune system and the inertia of habits and fixed routines.

What if change could be on demand? Just as old flow television programming has its limits, so does the central controlled change process. These days we want access to information and resources whenever and wherever we need them, when it is relevant – not before, not after. Imagine how much easier, more fun and rewarding it would be if change push was converted to change pull.

From change tools to change toys

The mechanistic style of classical change management has produced a lot of tools based on different theories and schools. Too many and too complex to handle. Tools are good to have, sure, but most often they only work under certain circumstances and cannot be transferred directly from one context to another.

The Brain-Friendly Approach suggests that you start to look for change toys instead of change tools. Adding a fun factor and some playfulness to an otherwise serious situation can lift the quality of both life and work. Why not spend some time on your next project onboarding people by letting them experiment with everything within the frame of the project? Playing engages the brain much more than planning.

Easiness before motivation before commitment

The Brain-Friendly Approach is the science and practice of giving the brain the best possible working conditions – in the moment and over time. Starting from the easy end, then adding a fun factor to light up a fire of passion before calling for discipline and commitment. This includes designing the context carefully, playing together seriously and repeatedly challenging everything and everyone.

The old fear of failing in a power hierarchy is replaced by the new excitement of personal freedom, relevance and meaning.

The starter of most change is a burning platform, but the real engine of change is the shared hope of arriving at something better, and the only fuel of change is engaged human energy.

Balance frame and freedom

In his 2018 book “Alive at Work”, London Business School professor Daniel M. Cable suggests that organisations figure out how to balance the frame and the freedom – finding the space where workers can contribute, experiment, express themselves and play to their strengths for the benefit of the whole organisation.

Figure 1: Balance frame and freedom.

In general, we need frames to set the overall direction and guide local decision-making. By giving space within a frame, corporate intention can become collective intentionality, top-down aspiration can facilitate bottom-up experimentation and outside-in inspiration can ignite inside-out creation.

Individual brains have different needs and drivers, but together we can create a social reality where the actual change initiative can be integrated in the way we see and do things. Not by force, but by free will. Without a shared social reality and collective intentionality, no change will happen.

Read about reactions to change in the first Brain-Friendly Approach article

Frame the space

The framing process links the overall philosophy and aspiration with local goal setting and design. To memorise the steps, I use the acronym SPACE.

Figure 2: My project made brain-friendly.

Storyline introduces the desired change. What are we moving from and to? This is the most crucial step in the framing process. A catchy storyline that sticks can change the mindset in an instant. Try to sense the movement in storylines like: From being available anywhere to being accessible anytime. From customer selector to client connector. From competitive advantage to collaborative edge. From getting the pulse to setting it.

Purpose connects to the bigger picture. Why do we do it at all? More and more organisations are associating their brand with a higher purpose, moving into the area of good business. This trend will continue to develop, for the benefit of not only the noble causes but also the businesses and their people. Compassionate action is the highway to a happy mind and a productive workforce. Check out the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN for inspiration.

Whereas Storyline and Purpose refer to the overall frame, Ambition, Condition and Expectation form the active link between the corporate aspiration and local experimentation.

Ambition defines the scale and scope. What do we want to achieve? It is about sizing and balancing the overall movement: How high are we aiming? Are we talking about global presence or local dominance? What kind of growth are we looking for? Is it tomorrow, next week or in a year?

Condition includes timing and resources. What to invest and what to accept? This part of the framing process creates the structural and cultural foundation of local work and collaboration. Which resources are available upfront, which are on demand and which can be negotiated later? What is the overall time frame and project flow?

Expectation focusses on output and impact. What to deliver where and when? The local activities are self-organised and independent, so the expected output is defined in a close dialogue between the local SPACE agents and the global representatives.

Note: SPACE corresponds to the Why and What parts of the traditional strategy and planning work. However, by including Storyline in the framing process, you install movement directly and by leaving out the How, Who, Where and When parts, you open up for local translation and variation.

Set a clear goal

With the frame in place, the local freedom to think and act can flourish. Seen from a Brain-Friendly Approach perspective, it is smart to set a clear goal. Brains just love simplicity and clarity when it comes to goal setting. The opposite, having an unclear goal or no goal at all, will make the brain process information randomly.

The goal should be so easy to grasp that it can be used as a lens through which we see everything we do. Will this decision or action bring us closer to the goal or move us away from it? This will make most KPIs and similar performance measures obsolete.

Define wanted behaviour

When we have a clear goal, it becomes easier to define the wanted behaviour. How exactly do we want to act? If we are implementing a new IT system for instance, what specific steps on a learning ladder do we want to see, and what concrete experiences do we want people to have? If we want to change our safety culture, which exact behaviour do we want workers or visitors to have?

Knowing which behaviour to strive for and being able to recognise it puts us in a place where we can use the new behaviour as a measure of how well we are doing – as our proof of progress. How many users of the new IT system manage to reach which steps on the learning ladder? How many of the workers or visitors behaved as wanted? How often and how much?

Think and act brain-friendly

Design to ease. The brain is fanatic about saving energy. It is always in the market for easy and safe solutions. So, an important design element is to set the wanted behaviour as the default, ensuring that it will cost extra energy to deviate from the pre-selected option. Here, you can tap into existing infrastructures, link to social routines and combine with existing personal habits.

Play to engage. Adding a fun factor is pure magic if you want people to move from just being motivated to really feeling engaged in a given change process. As humans, we are biased towards the safe choice, the predictable outcome, the familiar and the popular. Therefore, it is wise to onboard people from where they are and let them go with the energy to find their own route toward the desired change.

Challenge to grow. Feeling good and looking good is important to everyone. We feel good in our comfort zone where things are easy and predictable. We don’t feel as good in the learning zone, not because we don’t like to learn, but because it is unknown, and hence, unpredictable territory. The risk of failing rises rapidly which will not make us look as good. So, no change this time, please.

Figure 3: Easiness before motivation before commitment, 2016 Implement Consulting Group.

The crazy thing is that we would rather do the wrong things right than the right things wrong. Which is exactly the opposite of having the growth mindset that Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford University, talks about. From her research, we know that if we believe our brain can grow, it leads to increased motivation and achievement.

Belief is one thing, another is to create the conditions where learning can happen. In the Brian-Friendly Approach, we use the stretch factor to accelerate learning, by combining elements from gaming, dilemma play, simulation, facilitation and coaching. We work with the context to change the concepts holding us back and pressing us down – and in this way, change the behaviour.

Work with context

We deal with three types of context: functional, social and individual.

Figure 4: Change context triangle.
  • Working with the functional context is about changing it: the workplace, the technology, the organisation, the project set-up, the management system and other structural influencers of behaviour.
  • Working with the social context is about changing us and the interactions between us: the situations, shared routines, communication, collaboration, teaming and leadership.
  • Working with the individual context is about changing me: my stories, my experience, my habits, my engagement and my self-leadership.

To integrate and synchronise the change work, we use the Change Context Canvas. Here, the different activities associated with the goal can be balanced and co-ordinated in a simple way.

Since we want to have an easy start, we ask: What to keep? Is there something already up and running that we can tap into? Then we ask: What to stop? What to unlearn and leave behind? Finally, we ask: What to start? What could be fun and cool to do? What do we really, really want?

All the way round – all the way out

From a systemic and functional perspective, change often looks both necessary and logical. It makes sense to improve profitability, safety, quality or sustainability and to change the work environment, technology, organisation and procedures accordingly.

The Brain-Friendly Approach makes it easy, fun and rewarding through design, play and challenges – working with the context, all the way round and all the way out.

However, on the experience and behavioural level, it makes little or no sense. Here, I am occupied with my daily routines, making important decisions and trying to manage the mess around me – and then an invitation from the digital workplace group for some mandatory training arrives, and I must spend time and energy on that now – or later – or never.

Modern companies are facing the same challenge: How do system logic and corporate intention transform into daily behaviour? How do structural and cultural changes become natural?

Figure 5: Change context canvas.

Stay alive – stay relevant

Today’s business world forces us to learn and unlearn continuously. It’s a pressure that can become a pleasure, if you replace push with pull and tools with toys. It starts in the mind, in your brain and in the stories you tell, share and believe in.

Here is a brain-friendly thought: If the stories we tell become the world we live in, why not tell good stories about good lives in good businesses?

Enjoy your day@work.