How to hack your brain to cope with change

How leaders can rewire their brains in order to lead change and drive organisational transformation.

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On a sunny day in February, leaders from around the world have gathered in one of London Business School’s lecture halls. They’re sitting in small groups, in front of assortments of brightly coloured Lego pieces. Some of them are looking perplexed, even slightly uncomfortable. But on LBS’s Leading Change for Organisational Transformation programme, discomfort isn’t a dirty word. “Think about exercise,” Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of the programme, tells them. “When you feel the burn do you stop because it’s uncomfortable? Or do you carry on, because that pain is a sign of progress?”

They look back at their tables. In front of them are all manner, shapes, and sizes of Lego pieces: basic blocks, Lego people dressed as workmen, tigers and elephants, scraps of rope and miniature doors and windows. Over the next two hours, these CEOs, senior managers and their teams will build models representing their professional journeys so far, their current workplace challenges, and the solution to these challenges.

The lost art of creativity

So, what’s all this got to do with business? Tim Sylvester, who leads this portion of the programme, kicks things off with a history lesson. In 1968, a scientist called George Land gave a creativity test he’d developed for NASA to 1,600 children between the ages of four and five. The test was originally designed to help NASA identify their most innovative engineers and scientists for cutting-edge projects. When the children took the test, the results were astonishing: 98% of them scored at the ‘creative genius’ level.

Fascinated by this result, Lane tested the children again at various five-year intervals. By the time the children were 15, only 12% were scoring anywhere near the level they had done when they were younger. So, what happened to all that genius? “What we have concluded is that non-creative behaviour is learned,” Land wrote at the time.

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Rob Greig

“Ultimately, the important thing is being able to forget your assumptions in order to stay relevant”

Today, Professor Cable describes the pattern of thinking many adults fall into as a groove. “The thing about these grooves is that they can easily become ruts,” he explains. “The brain uses about 20% of our energy, more than any other single organ in the body. So of course, subconsciously we’re always looking for ways to use our brains less, in case we need that energy for something else – like running from a predator.” The downside of this, he believes, is that it makes dealing with change difficult.

For senior business leaders, trying to engineer organisational change can often feel near-impossible. “It’s similar to the feeling you get when you try to write with your non-dominant hand – except you’re also asking a whole group of people to do the same, whilst trying to convince them that it’s actually good for them,” Dan says.

Embracing the grey spaces

Many participants enrol on the Leading Change programme with a clear idea of their ‘change challenge’. Perhaps they want to be more customer-focused, adapt to a new technology or system, or get more comfortable with digital. “I’d say most of them think they’re coming to learn change management”, Professor Cable explains. “They think they’ll leave here with an understanding of the specific tools and processes or the investments they have to make in order to create change. And they will get all that. But perhaps the most important thing we’re doing is helping them reflect on how they personally view change and helping them shift their mindset.”

The programmes uses simulations and serious play exercises, like the Lego activity, to help participants rewire their thinking to be more change-positive. “Rather than leaders feeling anxious about change, we want them to feel comfortable telling their people about a business challenge without telling people a solution they have worked out in advance. They can say they need some help figuring it out – and it’s not expected to work perfectly at first. As we say on the programme, nobody runs before they walk, and nobody walks before they fall.”

Essentially, the programme is designed not just to deal with an organisation’s immediate challenges – but to spark a cultural transformation that enables an organisation to remain relevant, whatever challenges the future holds. Today it could be digital delivery, tomorrow it could be driverless cars. For Professor Cable, embracing this meta-change is the key to lasting success. “We try to model being intrigued by the grey spaces, being curious about ambiguity. This is crucial for leaders, because the way you as a leader respond to change tells your people how they should be responding to change.”

Preparing for a future where re-skilling is the norm

Even for those of us who aren’t currently leading large organisations through periods of change, the programme’s philosophy holds some valuable lessons. Professor Cable says he was inspired by organisational psychologist Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Think Again. On his website, Grant writes, “Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.” This is the premise of Think Again, and an idea that encapsulates many of the issues Professor Cable sees his students grappling with. “Ultimately, learning programming or coding or digital marketing is not the important thing – the important thing is being able to forget your assumptions in order to stay relevant.”

 As more of us abandon a life of linear career progression in favour of portfolio careers, consisting of shorter stints in different roles, we will all have to learn to embrace change. Professor Cable points out that many of the jobs people are training for today didn’t exist even just five or 10 years ago; in this kind of labour market there really is no other way to remain relevant than accepting that relevancy is not a static state. We must be ready for a life of constant evolution and growth.

“Often, people tell me they feel like they’ve been woken up. It’s why I love what I do, we get to help people put more living into their lives”

The enormity of this challenge is what drives the unique approach Professor Cable has taken to the Leading Change programme. “We’re concerned with the seeking part of the brain”, he tells me. “There are three triggers that seem to activate this part of brains – learning new things, highlighting our unique strengths and understanding the personal impact we have on the world.”

The programme begins with an examination of these triggers and the science behind them, before moving on to immersive, personalised exercises that give participants the opportunity to put the theory to the test. As well as the Lego session, there is a lesson in leading people through transformation (which revolves around watching a jazz quartet and comparing it to an orchestra) and a storytelling exercise in which participants work with a professional actor to write and perform the story of themselves and their careers.

How do participants, many of whom come from very corporate environments, react to these unusual approaches? “A lot of them are hesitant at first, it feels unnatural”, he admits. “But as they proceed, they start unlocking parts of themselves they might have hidden away. It’s an unleashing process and it becomes personal and emotional.” In many ways, this unleashing serves as a reminder to participants that no matter how senior or how corporate they are today, they too were once young creative geniuses. For Professor Cable, witnessing this transformation is both a sign of a job well done and a privilege. “We all have creativity and flexibility inside of us, even if it’s buried. Often, people tell me they feel like they’ve been woken up. It’s why I love what I do, we get to help people put more living into their lives.”

Professor Dan Cable’s three lessons for leaders looking to create a culture of change:

  • Create safe places for people to learn and try new things without fear of punishment.
  • Look for ways to highlight people's strengths. Catch them doing something right? Celebrate what's unique and valuable about that person.
  • Help people experience their own impact. Talk them through the effects of their work – or even better, help them experience that impact first-hand.

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