As many of you know who follow this column regularly, over the past two+ years we have begun to pay more and more attention to the notion of "organizational change." We have long taken the position that attention to an individual's personal development leads to both better leaders and followers, which leads to better functioning teams, which then leads to greater organizational success. Thus, our initial developmental focus was largely placed on the individual, working both with our executive and our student populations. Increasingly, however, our executives have been looking to us for assistance on a much broader scale. Our success in enhancing their leadership performance has in many cases led to promotions where driving organizational results is of paramount concern. They see that those for whom they now have responsibility are encountering many of the same kind of transitional issues they faced and then overcame within our development system. So how do we best frame our system to assist in an organization's change efforts more generally, and with developing their high-potentials more specifically?
In seeking some measure of guidance, we began first by looking to generally available resources - popular press, professional handbooks, training materials, and academic research. Our simple strategy was to identify a successful organizational change philosophy and then see if we could support the consultants who were implementing it systematically. The several with whom we had initial exploratory discussions saw both the value in approaching personal development from our "big data" perspective and how our system was best aligned to do it. But from our side, we found many of the change philosophies to be sadly lacking in rigor; worse, we found that most focused on the "knowledge" or content side of development - essentially attend a workshop, read a book, or watch a video. Over the past 15 years in patiently developing our system, we have certainly learned that technical solutions to adaptive (or behavioral) problems are simply not effective. In fact, internally we put them in the same category as weight-loss programs - losing a few pounds and then gaining them back plus 7 percent more is the median result according to good research. Quite similarly, technical solutions deliver a person who is likely to be "7 percent" worse at whatever content topic was addressed if the important underlying issue is adaptive in nature. If you have an emotional issue with conflict (and have thus developed a System 1 reaction from experience to avoid it), 10,000 years of courses on conflict management are not likely to resolve the underlying behavior issue without first coaching through the behavioral issue--- but through the course you will be confident in your ability to do something right up and until you have to do it and then your unconscious, automatic System 1 habitual, avoidance reaction will again "self-protect" you from the anxiety. In this same vein, we also heard the surprising level of dissatisfaction in current high-potential development programs being openly voiced by organizations, with the cogency and forcefulness of a number of them being quite a surprise to us.
So where do you turn? Every year seemingly brings us another round of books and manuscripts proclaiming a new path to successful organizational change in the form of action-oriented toolkits, strategic communications, tactics and resources, change cycles, leadership processes, and methods for firing up commitment, along with the more traditional theory and design, concepts and practices, and handbook editions. Without making an effort to somehow categorize them in any particular way, Amazon shows that more than 54,000 potential titles are available in response to an inquiry for "organizational change." To filter through the clutter, we set very specific criteria. To be fully compatible with our system, an organizational change, high-potential development philosophy had to have a basis in neuroscience and social psychology. Importantly, that basis had to be oriented toward the "prescriptive," as opposed to the "descriptive" use of neuroscience. Several of the works we reviewed were very much into neuroscience "show and tell" ("descriptive" use of neuroscience) in explaining management and leadership; but very few understood the practical use of it in actually improving an individual's performance and well-being. Understanding what is "lighting up" in the brain of a person under stress is far different from recognizing shortcomings in specific brain functions that are generating a fear response and behavioral roadblocks.
In that specific regard, the organizational change philosophy needed to be based on an identifiable model or models of behavior. In most cases, we found the modeling rigor to be particularly lacking, seemingly based on everything but data. To the extent possible, we made an effort to take the "model" presented by the consultants and fit it into our models to test for consistency. Given the extent to which we have tested our models, this provided a firm understanding if their model had been developed through some systematic, scientific methodology that at least implicitly understood the importance of cause and effect, correlation, and statistical veracity. Without it, their model would likely be idiosyncratic and thus far less likely to make change a repeatable process.
As a third criteria we looked to the extent to which the proffered approach actually understood that change is difficult, demanding motivation and perseverance on the part of both the individual and the organization. Those of you most familiar with the 6-Columns in our development system understand and appreciate the insight that comes from seeing that your Column 1 goal is often undermined by your brain's Column 3 goal, with your Column 1 goal being a rational, conscious System 2 goal and your Column 3 goal being an unconscious, automatic System 1 goal. In many cases, this insight is sufficiently strong that executives will get the impression that simply being aware of this System 1 vs. System 2 mental conflict is sufficient to bring about the desired change in behavior. Later, when the change goal is still not realized the same executive will come back and complete Column 4, which assists in understanding why your brain created the System 1 goal in Column 3; essentially, it asks "what assumptions are you making that makes your brain believe it has to create such a System 1 goal as a "self-protection" effort." For many, their Column 4 insight is again sufficiently strong to lead them to believe that the desired change in behavior can be achieved on the basis of that understanding. Again, disappointment in the use of self-awareness to drive change leads the executive to return, with the intention of completing Column 5 which involves conducting a focused "Quantified-Self" experiment, serving to show the executive that the assumptions upon which Column 4 our based are false. As in the Column 3 and 4 insights, the Column 5 inside can once again entice the executive to believe that self-awareness alone will allow the desired change goal to be achieved. Finally, they realize that it is only the persistence found in Column 6 activities that actually leads to the achievement of the desired change goal. Relatively few of the change philosophies addressed this motivation, resilience, and persistence component of meaningful, purposeful change in anything more than from a technical perspective; while the adaptive problems at issue may be discussed and even identified, the vast majority of change philosophies offered little in terms of practical tools and techniques for addressing them in ways likely to bring about sustainable goal achievement.
These core, seemingly obvious, criteria eliminated the overwhelming majority of the books listed as potential "candidates" by our Amazon inquiry discussed above. However, there was one book that gets very close and in fact may be the last one standing. Walter McFarland and Susan Goldsworthy have written a highly compelling book called Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time. In terms of its use of neuroscience, the authors are careful and selective. Importantly, the authors make an effort to make the book about the use of neuroscience, and not about the science itself. Over the past three years, we have seen an unfortunate trend in popular press books on the brain towards "9 chapters of good neuroscience and neuroscience-based anecdotes, followed by 3 to 4 chapters of all too often poorly reasoned applications of the science." Worse, the proposed applications are often hypothetical and uniformly lack supporting data, unfortunately negatively impacting the credibility of science along the way. As a consequence, several important thought leaders (including several from the business community) have rightfully begun to question the applicability of neuroscience in improving performance and well-being. We would like to believe that Choosing Change is an indication that prospective authors and publishers are moving away from this trend. In illustrating the book's use of neuroscience, the authors are quite knowledgeable about the neural basis surrounding SCARF, social pain, habit formation, learning, and System 1 versus System 2 thinking as it relates to development, change, and learning processes. They also show how those concepts are fundamental to a successful change effort, whether on the part of an individual or an organization. In fact, in that specific regard, Part I of the book focuses on the individual leader with Part II focusing on the organization.
As their guide to the change process, the authors rely in part on a high-level model they refer to as the Five D's: disruption, desire, discipline, determination, and development. With the understanding that these types of high-level models or frameworks are often a necessary component of a book being presented to a lay audience, we made the effort to understand these component parts and the research relied upon by the authors for its construction to see how they related to various component parts of our behavioral models. While the data would suggest a different sequencing of the various component parts of their framework and sub-frameworks in some cases, in general the framework serves its purpose well. In one important sub-framework, the authors emphasize the behavior-defining components of working memory, long-term memory, error detection, and fear response. While we see the importance of these four components, our emphasis on mental complexity and social transition with regard to successful change efforts places attention on social awareness, threat and reward circuitry, self-awareness, and self-regulation. Additionally, this configuration also allows for more precision in terms of data collection and analysis.
With regard to the change effort itself, the authors make little effort to pull their punches. Desire, Discipline, and Determination directly address this fundamental notion. They rely on the same core research we have relied on for our modeling efforts, some of which we have reviewed here in other ABCs. The book is well documented, with cites to a wide variety of research across several applicable fields. The anecdotes serve to both support the points being made and to bring the applications to useful life. I have only concern: I hope CIMBA is able to put this serious work to the test as we continue to develop our system for direct use in organizations. Our clients - both student and executive - would expect no less.