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Why Change is Difficult

Blog post
By Pamela Ashby | 12 January 2018

When the BBC advertised for a Head of Change at the end of last year, they probably didn’t anticipate the ‘hoo-ha’ that it caused. I caught up with it on Radio 4 as I was driving one day and was reasonably bemused. The programme had found a ‘change expert’ to interview and was quizzing him about what a ‘head of change’ might do, and why such a role may be needed.

One news item on the subject reads “The corporation is looking for a head of change earning up to £78,000 a year, but applicants could be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, their duties would be...

The full job description …only serves to cloud the issue further. The head of change must “engage senior stakeholders to understand change impacts” and ensure that the “change environment is understood”, while simultaneously acting as a role model for “good practice change management competences and behaviours”.

None of it sounded so unreasonable to me, and I couldn’t quite see what the fuss was about. I think anyone with an interest in human beings and the way that they think, fully understands why it’s a real benefit to businesses that ‘change’ is being recognised as having strategic significance and status: “change is difficult”, as Hilary Scarlett starkly puts it in the very first page of her book ‘Neuroscience for Organizational Change’. She writes:

“We know from experience that personal change isn’t easy, from taking more exercise, eating more healthily, getting enough sleep… Organisational change is even harder: trying to persuade tens, hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people to change is a challenge.”

Ground breaking insights

Perhaps the question is ‘why is change so difficult?’ Why is it that we don’t just flex our habits and behaviours to match the needs of our surroundings, in a chameleon-like way?

Predominantly, this is because the world of work is changing faster than brains are evolving – which is why we need to pay more attention to implementing change.  

This is where we need a bit of neuroscience, and the ground-breaking insights that the last twenty years have revealed. Here are just a handful of facts from Hilary Scarlett’s book:

  • Our brains are just 2 per cent of our body weight, but use 20 per cent of our energy
  • Brains burn oxygen at 10 times the rate of our muscles
  • Brains try to save energy by taking short cuts – leading to biased decision making
  • We have our best ideas when the brain is quiet and allowed to ‘run free’
  • We have underestimated our need to ‘belong’ and feel connected to others
  • Work is increasingly collaborative and our ability to navigate the social landscape is more important than ever

The trouble is that our brains are constantly looking out for danger. They focus on anything that may be threatening, to try and keep us safe.  Our brains are always subconsciously trying to predict what will happen next, to protect us. This means that they don’t like uncertainty.

Being successful where change is the norm

As humans, we need support and guidance on new ways of working if we’re to be successful in a world where change is the norm, where uncertainty is here to stay, and where our future depends on our being able to be adaptive and innovative amidst the unknown.

None of this comes naturally to us, which is why books like Hilary Scarlett’s are so important and why the Agile Business Consortium is working to promote cultural change in organisations.

Many of us will have been told that our brains stop developing at 25 years old. The exciting news is that this is largely untrue and that the areas of the brain where there’s most potential for continuing development are those most useful to organisations – social skills and emotional intelligence for instance.

Once we understand all this, I think the BBC’s job advert makes a lot more sense. Heads of Change are invaluable in understanding what’s needed to sustain the safe environment needed for our brains to be adaptive within a fast-moving environment that’s rife with uncertainty.