Neural Improvement?

This is an essay on how neuroscience informed approaches to change management can be of relevance to the field of business process improvement. The content is extensively referenced so as to provide helpful markers to those interested in further research along these lines.


Sydney, June 28, 2011.  First day of the Process Excellence Summit and Awards (IQPC, 2011).  This is the world of lean six sigma (George, Maxey, Rowlands, & Price, 2004), total quality management (“Total Quality Management,” 2013), capability maturity models (Carnegie Melon, 2013) and organisational transformation.  But with respect to change management (Harmon, 2011), it is also a world where the benefits of hindsight (Koch, 2006) rarely lead to the wisdom of foresight.  Organisational change efforts continue to under-perform (Hamel & Prahalad, 1996).

More than one process improvement (PI) practitioner will begin a presentation with the people-process-technology (PPT) triumvirate.  Each proclaimed as critical to success and neatly depicted as three equally sized interlocking circles as per the Venn diagrams of our schooling.  But what follows is a tale heavily skewed to process analytics and technologies (Fox, 2011) with just cursory consideration (Willmott, 1994) to the people challenges confronted.  Change is relegated to the too hard basket and failures attributed to poor executive sponsorship and communication.  We conclude with a slide of the change-model du-jour (e.g. Stelzer & Mellis, 1999, Baekdal & Hansen, 2006), lessons learned and recommendations for next time round.

The PI industry has in the past decade made significant advances in the products (Hill, 2011) and methods at its disposal.  Change management (Pritchard & Armistead, 1999) has not kept the same pace (Bell, 2005) accounting for typically less than 20% of PI training (Wheat, Mills, & Carnell, 2003).  IT and business analysts dominate the field while the social sciences figure only at the margins.  The proposition here is  that the neurosciences hold some promise to help bridge these professional boundaries and potentially refresh the people piece of the improvement puzzle.


To approach this challenge the question is posed – how can knowledge of neuroscience help me better manage the challenge of change?  This will be addressed by a review of some key findings that have been collated around the sub-discipline known as “neuroleadership” (Ringleb, Rock, & Collegio, 2008).  Once the evidence is in, we put forward a practical model known as SCARF (Status-Certainty-Autonomy-Relatedness-Fairness) (Rock, 2008) that can practitioners help navigate the brain-on-change in a manner accessible to human observation.

This strategy is based on a number of assumptions.  There is, arguably, merit for its own sake in educating consultants on brain science based approaches to understanding human behaviour.  For some individuals a discourse framed around the physical sciences may resonate where others have failed.  Introducing PI stakeholders to the language of neuroscience may facilitate cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration – perhaps forming a new lingua franca for change management.

This is also an approach pinned to the credos of authenticity and emergence.  To choose a single summation of neuroleadership, it is of the journey to become an authentic leader.  Neuroscience is not only a rich source for self-discovery but also reveals how easily others can see through falseness, be it betrayed at the conscious or unconscious level.

Some argue that consciousness is an emergent property of the complex brain-body system (Rock, 2009) we inhabit.  This metaphor can be extended to the organisational setting, its state an emergent property of the chaotic interactions of its constituent elements.  Top-down executive directives do impact but can only ever represent a partial explanation.  Neuroscience helps suggest how leaders can fashion an environment that permits individuals to contribute to positive change in their own way.

The Brain On Change

Multiple stakeholders make change management a most wicked (Conklin, 2005) element of the already wicked PI problem.  The following brain-centric coverage on change may help “reveal the trees for the forest”.

Minimise Danger – Maximise Reward

To start with an holistic view, the Integrate model (Gordon, 2000) proposes “minimise danger and maximise reward” as the overall guiding principle by which to comprehend the rational of the brain’s architecture.  To survive and prosper we must make appropriate avoid and approach decisions based on what we have learned about a given stimuli.  Flight or fight responses require rapid assessments made even before conscious awareness.  Ancient neuroanatomical components such as the amygdala (Bainbridge, 2010, p. 279) have evolved to trigger an irresistible fear response to a “rustle in the bushes”.  Every interaction with every stakeholder in every step of a process improvement journey will trigger an implicit approach or avoidance response.  Whether conscious or not, all constituents will judge the authenticity of the PI mission.


As the seat of our higher level planning and cognitive functions (Lehrer, 2009, p. 106), the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the most evolved of our brain regions.  Nicknamed “the CEO”, it represents 29% (Deacon, 1998) of the human cortex.  As comparison, for chimpanzees or dogs the figure drops to 17% and 7% respectively.  The PFC is a precious resource with high-energy demands that are quickly dissipated.  Performance can fluctuate throughout the day and when taxed mental processing declines and the ability to regulate our emotions is impaired.  Cognitive resources must be managed just as a coach manages players on the sporting field.  Disruptive change imposes a heavy cognitive load on those affected.  To encourage great thinking to emerge and minimise the anxiety of cognitive dissonance (van Veen, Krug, Schooler, & Carter, 2009), do not call a general all-hands meeting for 3:30pm.

Going Limbic

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals increased blood oxygenation activity levels (BOLD) in the orbital frontal cortex (OFC) region (Montague, 2007, p. 205) of the brain when the subject is exposed to unusual or unexpected stimuli.  The brain is as an error detection machine par excellence, and the sub-conscious will detect inauthenticity even if the conscious does not (Damasio, 2005).  Moderate levels of stimuli can be beneficial as it draws our attention and focus to act but a tipping point exists at which the individual becomes over aroused and a threat response is triggered.  Outside the comfort zone the limbic region dominates as resources are drawn away from the PFC. The limbic system is the seat of our emotional response and is optimised for immediacy such as dealing with an environmental threat.  Memory suffers, pessimism reigns and emotions heighten.  This is stress, and not a good place to be when positive, constructive input is required.  Management begins by first recognising the symptoms suggestive of “going limbic” and applying tools for its control.  Education in emotional regulation strategies (Oschner, 2008) and techniques such as labelling can be part of the solution.


The average adult brain weighs in at around 1.5 kilogram and contains over 100 billion nerve cells.  Synaptic connections form between neurons to form mental maps that are thought to be the basis of learning and memory.  To paraphrase Hebb (Hebb, 2002), “cells that fire together, wire together”.  Research in “neuroplasticity” (Doidge, 2007) is revealing the brain’s capacity to continue to form new maps through life is significantly greater than first believed.  Decline is not inevitable.  Attention, focus and positive feedback literally change the brain causing new permanent connections to form.  Release of the neurotransmitter dopamine is thought key in learning and reward systems that draw our attention and consolidate the connections.  People can change; a suspected PI recalcitrant can be turned around (People, 2010).  To encourage a learning environment to emerge, encourage a dopamine surge by beginning with material of a novel, curious and non-threatening nature.


Problems can be solved using either an analytical or insight based technique.  There are neurophysiological markers to the moment of insight.  Monitoring the electrical waveforms in the brain reveals a surge in the gamma band and pronounced activity in the anterior, superior temporal gyrus – a gamma synchrony.  This has profound consequences as it enables researchers to test what conditions and behaviours are conducive for “moments of insight” to emerge (Mark Jung-Beeman, 2008).  Enduring change is thought to be most effective when individuals come to a realisation for themselves, and so taking ownership of the process improvement solution.  This is self-directed change resulting from insight forming new mental maps.

The Social Brain

The sub-discipline of social cognitive neuroscience (Eisenberger, 2008) has formed to build on research suggesting considerable overlap in the neurocorrelates of our social and biological needs.  Social pain is real pain.  As such, one would expect to find that mechanisms to facilitate empathy take on a greater prominence.  The discovery of a mirror neuron function (Iacoboni & Dapretto, 2006) suggests an entire subsystem designed for such a purpose.  We assemble a “Theory of Mind” (e.g. David Premack, 1978) in order to extrapolate the intentions of others, potentially a factor critical to survival, and mirror neurons may have evolved in response.  Our evaluation of the authenticity of those leading change is intimately tied how connected we feel.


At least for now, scanners, sensors and probes are not practical work place accessories for introspecting a person’s state of mind.  SCARF (Rock, 2008) is a brain science inspired tool for comprehending avoid-or-approach behaviour that operates on a level accessible to human observation.  An individual’s response to change can be assessed in terms of how it may threaten or support his relative status, degree of uncertainty, autonomy, feelings of relatedness or fairness – five domains in the model’s current form.  360-degree assessment instruments exist to calibrate how individuals fair against each dimension.  As SCARF emphasises the social element to human motivation, it is particularly well adapted to issues confronted in a PI context.

In application, change management programs that borrow from familiar models such as Kotter’s 8 Stages (Kotter, 2011) or Lewin’s 3-Step Change Theory (Lewin, 1947) can be intersected with SCARF.  Strategies, initiatives and interventions can then be tested for potential adverse reactions and so ensure authentic drivers for change are not confounded by miscommunications.  For managers, SCARF is a simple enough mental model to be applicable to regulate real-time interactions.  It can help leaders quietly reflect on and refine their leadership style.


There are signs that people-centric approaches can take hold.  Returning to this same Process Excellence Summit, ING Direct (French, 2011) reported on their quality improvement program known as “Simply Orange”.  Their vision was simply stated and authentic, “great customer experience through simple & straightforward processes at low cost”.  More notably, however, this was a program where people were placed centre stage.  A psychologist took a prominent role in advising to the quality program.  Their process improvement journey was firmly grounded on the principles of bottom-up, organic development and co-creation.  Great ideas were encouraged to emerge.

The Quality Management team made an effort to design analysis tools suitable for the different roles and skill sets of the participants.  Some of the more “exotic” lean and six-sigma statistical methods were humanised so all constituents were empowered to make a difference.  For example, while business analysts used business process modelling notation (e.g. see , a new variant using illustrative and descriptive non-technical elements was developed to draw out and include best practices from field staff.  As per the Kotter-8, tactical projects and early wins were identified and celebrated and headlined under clear rallying banners such as “Less than 1 in 4 customers wait on the phone longer than 1 min”.

This was an approachable program that has successfully institutionalised a culture of continuous process improvement.  While today it is rare to find a neuroscience discourse in the PI industry, the ING Direct story suggests evidence that an early adopter mindset does exist.


Neuroscience helps reveal the richness of mechanisms at play when the human brain grapples with change.  This knowledge can help organisations better prepare for transformational programs and fashion an authentic vision for change.  It offers a language to comprehend behaviour that is detached, neutral and universal.  Stakeholders are empowered with terms and labels that can reduce stress and facilitate the emergence and ownership of solutions.  PI practitioners not at ease with soft-skills may accept brain science based explanations as a hard and more accessible alternative.  The aspiration is that continuous process improvement becomes part of the organisational psyche.  Dovetailing brain-based techniques into the methodology can contribute to ensuring people are more engaged in the process.


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