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Welcome to my blog. musings and observations around leadership, the brain, wellness and other stuff that attracts my attention...

Change - the battle between brain and strategy

Change - the battle between brain and strategy


Much has been, and continues to be written about change. Cliches and quotes describe change in many ways. Senior Leadership increasingly expects more change. Globally we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on change advice, from life coaches to corporations specialising in corporate and organisational change. Change is a massive industry, moreover it continues to be a massive and growing industry because change is, well, just tough. It's like there is a missing lubricant - there exists a change friction that has metaphorically a heating and braking outcome.

Almost equalling the number change practitioners is the number of change models, some powerful, others soft and fluffy. Despite the well laid out logic of modern change strategy, real change never seems to emerge as easily through the process. Real change - where we actually see new behaviours and processes - requires significant internal restructuring, a re-mapping of often well entrenched neural pathways with years of use. For me, the missing 'jar of grease' is explicit knowledge of the brain, and how it processes change. Without this, driving change is like driving a car without knowing that you have left the handbrake on... 

Brain vs Strategy

Brain vs Strategy

The above mental model shows that most visible change processes act above the waterline, yet the ability to engage with the change all happens below, particularly in the depths below conscious awareness and control. So what models exist to explain the processes below the waterline?

Pain Avoiding vs Reward Seeking

Well below any real conscious awareness is one of the prime (and primal) 'business' rules of the brain: avoiding pain and seeking reward. It drives many of our behavioural habits, and is a hugely influential neural feature in terms of change management.

Have you ever taken a shortcut? Once you are on an established shortcut, how aware are you of having avoided extra work? While the below example may appear trivial, it describes how ubiquitous 'pain' avoidance is. In fact, this phenomenon of pain avoidance short-cutting is so much a part of the human condition that it has a name: a desire path.



In a similar, if not more subtle way, we are also very reward programmed. Food is an obvious reward centre stimulant, but so is gambling (as are many addictions), many social behaviours and even just playing games on computers or smart devices. 

This 'deep' brain rule has a massive impact on change success, both at the individual and organisational levels. If not acknowledged, let alone understood, it can white-ant the most well developed strategies, leaving change leaders perplexed. 

As this is not enough, the overlay of brain individualism means that there are a widely varied range of internal responses to change. Martin Turnbull, in his paper A model of motivation for facilitating sustainable change, addresses this by identifying four 'change personality' types:

From A a model of motivation for facilitating sustainable change; Martin Turnbull, Neuroleadership Institute 2014   

From A a model of motivation for facilitating sustainable change; Martin Turnbull, Neuroleadership Institute 2014


This sort of research is well intrenched on both psychology and neuroscience domains, with implications for change leaders to better understand the profile of the change recipients.

SCARF - A model that links change to neuroscience

Again, from the stable of David Rock and the Neuroleadership Institute, SCARF describes elements of the human condition that need to be in place for change to be as painless as possible.

Copyright David Rock

Copyright David Rock

The SCARF model identifies key needs, even triggers that act below the waterline in my iceberg model - processes that engage conscious (and more often) unconscious responses to threat and/or reward.

In my work in education, and in particular, in my work with both student social and emotional learning (SEAL) and in driving technology change across a large organisation, I have tweaked the model to:

Safety (social, emotional, professional), Clarity (and/or Certainty), Autonomy, Respect and Fairness. To bring some sort of meaning to this model, take a moment to reflect on what 'presses your buttons' organisationally, or socially. For me, out in the real world, it is getting stuck behind someone walking slowly, often head down engaging with a smartphone. Using the above model, my interpretation is that this is triggering autonomy first, (my choice to go where I want is reduced) and fairness second. Indeed, many rules-based transgressions trigger fairness, whether they are social or organisational rules.

The key point here, for change agents, is that unless the individual brain can process the change internally, there is very little chance of engaging in the change process. This can lead to passive-aggressive avoidance of the change, or even outright opposition.

To see what your key trigger(s) might be, visit

To hear the model explained further:

Read about the neuroscience behind SCARF here.

Red Zone Blue Zone

The las of the models to discuss here is very much a brain operation model, taking a parallel view to the risk avoidance-reward seeking business full of the brain, though at a more conscious/awareness level.

This model is extensively discussed in an earlier post: Red Zone - Blue Zone Primer

Suffice to say, change is in the blue zone, resistance is in the red. As change agents, we need to shift conscious attention and unconscious brain rules away from survival and threat to engagement and reflection. Further, the power of talking things through, particularly in a structured way, is largely undervalued as a process in change management. Using narrative and talking therapies/processes when used at the symbolic level (clarity of distance) activates many areas of the brain involved in the Blue Zone.

"Molecular neuroscience demonstrated how talking therapies are the preferred strategies to facilitate neural change. New patterns of neural activation can be facilitated through the unique qualities of talking strategies provided in an enriched environment. This is facilitated by effective activation of the mirror neuron systems, enhancing cortical blood flow to empower solution focused outcomes, and facilitating and strengthening new activation patterns to enhance long term patterns and reduce risk and relapse into default neural protection patterns."
Pieter J Rossouw , The neuroscience of talking therapies: Implications for therapeutic practice, National Conference of the College of Counselling Psychologists Melbourne 21-24 February 2013 

A great example that I use in my training models here at the Australian International School,  is Think/Pair/Share - a very effective training process to engage thinking and feeling towards making meaning of a new concept or change idea.

The point of of this blog?

  • Think about and work to the brain processes in each individual stakeholder involved in the change.
  • Shape this below the waterline environment to the vision and purpose of the change using tools like Think/Pare/Share and Kotter's 8 Steps change model
  • Provide stakeholders with the mental models of SCARF and Red Zone Blue Zone as scaffolds for their own progression, as individuals ad groups, through the change process.

If you are a change agent, ignore the brain at your peril...




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