Having articulated and refined a shared understanding of:

  • motivation, needs, offers, and value propositions
  • design of the means of developing and delivering offers
  • capability required to realise the design
  • investment to establish and sustain the capability

it is time to give consideration to cultivating the capability.  This entails the foundation competencies in program management and delivery, combined with attention to developing the required culture and behaviour. In so doing, we come much closer to thinking about:

being more brain savvy in strengthening capability and effecting change

Let’s explore change with the brain in mind and then outline how becoming more brain savvy will enable us to better cultivate organisational capabilities.

Some brain basics relative to change

In the brain, change is associated with error detection, threats, and fear, and is mostly non-conscious.  All of this happens very quickly without us even being aware of it. Change quickly fires a threat response; in fact, merely receiving advice or information can be registered in the mind as change and can elicit a threat response.

Neuroscience research clearly shows us that threat response sharply reduces use of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking occurs. Brain science also tells us that when a person has thoughts that are not related, or that conflict with each other, we experience anxiety and stress. This is called “cognitive dissonance.” It has been found that having congruent thoughts is as desirable as food, shelter, water, and safety.

Change really is painful – that’s why it is so difficult!

Managing and being smart about change

For over 20 years, change management specialists have honed their skills and become ‘stylists’ using techniques from a range of disciplines (psychology, sociology, biology, neuroscience, systems thinking and design thinking) which are now widely accepted by the global business community.  Being smart about change is not about being ‘beholden’ to one particular framework or methodology.  Rather, it is about ‘styling’ a fit for purpose design that curates, shepherds and guides people, teams and organisations.  It means:

  • identifying capabilities amongst people, teams and the organisation
  • using person-centred approaches, at scale, to strengthen and mature these capabilities

Our key learning through this process is that emphasis must be focused on the non-conscious elements of change; emotions, habits and biases.

In our experience, one of the most significant causes of project failure is the design and use of change interventions based on a technical, logical, mechanistic perspective that doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the threat, fear and pain elements experienced in the brain by those upon whom the interventions are applied.

Applying neuroscience principles to being smart

At the individual level, we might encourage and support people holding diverse perspectives. To navigate the anxiety and stress of differing thinking preferences, people can be coached to:

  • ignore one or more lines of thinking
  • decide to change the importance given to different lines of thinking
  • add new or different lines of thinking

It is important to note that if there is no dissonance, there can be no change. Changes must be designed in a manner that activates an appropriate amount of dissonance.

At the organisational level, let’s take a classic, well-used change approach—Lewin’s Change Model — and adapt it slightly using neuroscience, with the aim of increasing the effectiveness of the change effort.

In the ‘Unfreeze’ phase, Lewin suggests we begin to think differently about the existing situation (or reality, or process). A strategy here, supported by neuroscience, could be to increase the visible driving forces and decrease the restraining forces. This gives attention and focus to creating a new outcome, which in turn creates motion toward what is new.

In the second step, ‘Movement’, we move toward a new equilibrium and view the problem from a new perspective. An effective strategy here is reappraisal. Those navigating a change can be taught the skills involved in reappraising as a method of both emotional regulation and how to maintain their job effectiveness.

Finally, in the ‘Refreezing’ stage, we consolidate new beliefs and behaviours. We integrate new ideas or processes. Brain science would tell us here, that new beliefs and behaviours are now being hardwired in our basal ganglia. Once there, these new beliefs and behaviours become comfortable and possibly even rewarding.

Six key practices

Keeping the following six psychological SAFETYTM  brain-based basic elements at the forefront of change initiative planning will ensure a smarter and more brain savvy approach:

  1. The most common unmet need in times of change is the need for security – certainty, commitment and control. Lack of information triggers threat. Share as much information as possible, even when the only information is that more answers are being sought.
  2. There is oftentimes a perceived helplessness associated with change efforts. Helplessness causes emotional responses such as depression and apathy. Encourage others to see their own autonomy and focus on where it does exist rather than where it may not.
  3. People need to believe that there is equity associated with decisions made in a change effort. Highlight the basis on which decisions were made where possible assure people of fairness in proceedings.
  4. Remember that personal reputations are at stake in the midst of organisational change. Esteem is important to our brains, and not knowing the new pecking order is anxiety-producing. Clarify where and when possible.
  5. Those people experiencing change need to continue to feel like they are still part of a comfortable group (their in-group). Look for opportunities to reinforce pre-existing group relationships and build trust.
  6. Importantly, each of these is personal and unique to each person – to you.  So, a continued emphasis on these and other non-conscious elements during change is not only smart, but absolutely necessary.

Bringing it all together

As with each of the preceding steps, this stage may lead to iteration through previous steps, building a stronger shared understanding the endeavour being undertaken and the shared aspirations and goals being realised.  This may entail refinement of any of these elements.


Enterprise modeling

Applying the cultivation step to the undertaking of the articulating the enterprise transformation lifecycle on this site prompted the development of this series of pages, presenting information in different language which might not pose the same threat response as often occurs when using terms such as:

  • architecture
  • models
  • change

Enterprise transformation lifecycle

The application of the cultivation step takes leaders from the development of the capability development program plan and investment portfolio through the delivery and cultivation of the capability required to realise the intended business model and operation model.

This takes leaders through the completing the fourth step in the enterprise transformation lifecycle shown below.


Lifecycle links

In outlining the cultivation element of “bringing it all together”, an example has been provided for one of the key steps for any enterprise – realising the intended business model and operating model for the enterprise.

Further reading on taking a brain and systems savvy approach to cultivating capabilities can be found at: