Here we are, about month and a half into the new year. According to Gold’s Gym, it’s also the “fitness cliff” - the week most of us will stop going to the gym.
Why is it so hard to keep those resolutions, to make changes stick? After all, there are only three things one needs to know to embark on change:
Where we are (me: a bit over 14 stones)
Where we want to be (a stone less)
The means we should try to maneuver the territory between #1 and #2 (eat less, exercise more)
Old Habits Die Hard
One reason individual change can be so difficult is the power of habits. All of us have created many routines over the years. These behaviors have not only been responsible for our success, but have also helped shape our inner identity. We have been rewarded for certain behaviors, which we then strove to maximize. And we have likely been disincentivized (punished) for our non-compliant behaviors.
Meet Your Inner Reptile
One of the biggest obstacles to modifying our habits is our amygdala. That element of our brain structure gets direct inputs from our senses. It is highly pattern-focused, and processes many of our memories and past experiences.
The amygdala has a direct line to the neural networks that activate both our reward (approach) and threat (avoid) circuitry. It is very, very sensitive to danger and does its computations rapidly, well before we have had a chance to think things through with our much newer (and much slower) brain structures.
That ancient part of our brains helped our ancestors stay alive long enough for us to emerge from the evolutionary tree.
Thank Goodness for a Neocortex
Fortunately, we can work with the adaptive nature of our newer gray matter - our neocortex - to help us make change happen and stick.
Social neuroscientist David Rock has done extensive study into how the neural networks of both our older and newer brain structures impact our behavior in groups. I believe his model offers a key to unlocking successful change at an individual level - which then can cascade to the organization.
Rock’s SCARF model looks at the following five areas of social interaction:
– Relative importance
– Ability to predict the future
– Sense of control over events
– Sense of safety with others (Are you my friend or my foe?)
– Perception of fair exchanges (Are the rules of the game are clear?)
Being aware of these five domains and their influence on our behavior during periods of change will help each of us to get in touch with what might otherwise remain buried deep in the older recesses of our brains.
This understanding will help us when it comes time to making new kinds of decisions and taking new actions. It will help us manage our emotions and our stress levels when dealing with the uncertainty that accompanies change, when the path forward is unclear.
Gaining control over our emotional reactions to the stress of change and being able to train our neocortex to inhibit our amygdalas will have an added benefit of making us smarter. I’m not kidding here. Studies have shown that when we are in a stressed or threatened state (i.e., amygdala on high alert), there is literally less oxygen and glucose for the neocortex’s cognitive functions.
Unwrapping the SCARF
Let’s explore a couple of elements of this model in the context of a middle manager making individual changes to move from a command and control attitude to an agile mindset.
Our manager has likely attached much internal meaning to the importance of her status as a boss. She may have even responded in the past with aggression should her power be challenged (“We can’t possibly deliver X scope by Y date, boss”): “It’s my way or the highway!”
This is because a threat (perceived or real) to her status activates exactly the same primal neural networks as a threat to her life. And cortisol, the stress hormone, flows fast. That vigilant amygdala processes stimuli well before things reach her conscious awareness.
Well, that now presents a problem, eh? To be successful on the journey of embracing agility, our middle manager has to look at things in a very new way … decisions will need to be distributed to the wisdom of her teams, not addressed by hierarchy. And if using a Scrum framework, the team will not be dictated scope and delivery dates, but will themselves decide how much of a workload to accept in a given iteration.
Fortunately for our manager, there are tools that will help build a bridge to a new way of interacting:
Definition of Ready (DoR)
Definition of Done (DoD)
Enabling Self Learning Teams
Created in a spirit of collaboration with the manager’s teams, these tools can develop an environment of greater certainty, autonomy, and fairness, paving the way for good change - and not just for the manager.
The Power of Iterative Change
But as mentioned above, it will take time for our manager to change her ways, to move out of her habit-realm (See above: Old Habits Die Hard). Her evolution will likely be bumpy as she trains her neocortex to inhibit her amygdala.
In the beginning she will start to catch herself after the fact
of an amygdala hijack. (“Damn, I just [gave out an order, provided the ‘right answer’, yelled at the team]…”)
During her next stage, she will catch herself in the act
(“WTF is wrong with them! typing… getting ready to hit reply all… oh wait…. save draft instead of send.”)
Emerging to neocortex domination, she will think about things before she acts.
(“Feeling the need to say something here..is that really what’s best? Let me count to five first…”)
Arrival: She says and acts in a new way (or in some cases does not act) without forcing herself to think about it.
All along this path, people will value our middle manager differently. Not because of the implied power of her position but because she is changing in a way that brings out the best in others. Voilà: Status reward.
And here’s a really cool thing: People think about themselves using the same neural networks they use for thinking about others. As our ex-command and control manager begins to make breakthroughs in her own growth, doing better than last time, her own internal reward circuitry will be activated!
Unlocking Organizational Transformation
Sure, it can be hard to keep those New Year’s resolutions. However, the good news is that with conscious effort (and the support of a good coach), we can make changes that stick.
Along the journey, we will need to pace ourselves, taking time and making space to:
and learn from failures (don’t sweat ‘em, just don’t stop trying)
accomplishments, big and small
And since all organizations are composed of individuals, this collective pursuit of individual change will lead to greater things.
As we make breakthroughs in our own growth, we will likely become more aware of potential changes to organizational systems – compensation, flexible work arrangements, extrinsic motivations, information flow, training, on boarding and a vast range of other structures – that can have a huge impact the SCARF domains of our environment.
All of this is the master key to unlocking successful transformation at the scale of our organizations.