October 5, 2010 at 1:33 pm #112256
From Gartner Blogs
Change Requires Commitment, Repetition, and Feedback
by Mike Rollings
September 29, 2010
Scientists have studied the human brain to make some amazing discoveries about the ability to learn, adapt, and relearn abilities lost resulting from brain trauma. The Brain Fitness Program — a public television program about brain plasticity, which is the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences—provides insight into how the brain learns.
The Brain Fitness Program discusses the seven tenets of brain plasticity to describe the process of how the brain learns new skills. The seven tenets of the plastic brain are:
1. Change can occur only when the brain is in the mood: Change is enhanced by behavior and circumstances. Learning occurs with focused attention and is inhibited by an intentional refusal to accept new experiences.
2. Change strengthens the connection between neurons engaged at the same time: The brain forms a model of the brain connections that contribute to a good try. Stronger and faster connections between neurons form through repetition and the feedback about the outcome of the try versus what the brain wants.
3. Neurons that fire together wire together: The brain strengthens connections between things that happen in real time and predictions of possible outcomes. The brain blends what happens and the predictions together and weaves its own explanation of reality that is the basis of new skills.
4. Initial changes are temporary: We must receive feedback on good versus bad tries. Emotional connections create more permanent memories.
5. Brain plasticity is a two-way street: We can drive brain change positively or negatively. Unwanted bad habits continue because the brain has hard-wired itself through years of repeated behavior. To create change, we must literally rewire the brain!
6. Memory is crucial for learning: The brain creates predictive models about where it thinks it is going, models about performance during an attempt, and models that reflect cumulative learning of those attempts to create the desired outcome. The actions that are attempted and those that resulted in better performance must be remembered or learning cannot occur.
7. Motivation is a key factor in brain plasticity: If you are committed to making changes in your life, then it requires dedication and practice to create lasting change. Repetition is the key to making stronger connections.
Applying these tenets to the organization—which is a composite of individual brains—can help us understand why it is so hard to cause change in an organization and how to overcome this challenge:
• Change occurs when the brain is in the mood: Sponsors and executives create the mood within the organization.
• The brain records what constitutes a good try, but it must get feedback to know what is good: This is equivalent to new process participants learning what worked and did not work. No feedback equals no learning.
• Bad habits are hard-wired—change rewires the brain: This is why persistence, communication, and commitment are so important to change initiatives.
• The brain needs dedication and repetition to learn: Practice, repetition, and feedback are keys to organizational change.
As an example of these seven tenets at work, imagine learning a new skill like hitting a golf ball. If we had to consciously think about the hundreds of things going on in our body that contribute to hitting a golf ball well, it would be too complex to learn. So the brain builds us a model of this complex set of activities and constantly evaluates every attempt against both the predicted outcome and the actual outcome. Our motivation to learn golf and repeated attempts to master it will aid learning.
Obviously, we can apply these tenets directly to how we encourage change with individuals and within ourselves, but it also applies to change within organizations.
October 5, 2010 at 1:52 pm #112262
Call me a sourpuss, but as someone who spent over a decade in the animal lab studying the neurophysiology of memory, learning, and attention, and another decade studying human cognition across the lifespan, and yet another decade studying organizational dynamics and HRM, my eyes roll over – shark-style – when I see this sort of stuff.
There is absolutely no need, beyond the rhetorical, to appeal to brain mechanisms. We ARE our brains. When we talk about us, and the world of our experiences, we have automatically included the brain, and don’t need to raise it separately. When I had the pleasure and honour of attending a weeklong series of talks on dualism and the mind/brain “problem” by Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry some 25 years ago, Sperry noted that while, of course, rubber balls are the sum total of their molecules,”You don’t explain the behaviour of a rubber ball by appealing to its molecular components. You explain it by appealing to the physical structure and physics of balls and rubber.” He was entirely comfortable with leaving brain and neuron out of the conversation, and appealing to mind and social constructs when they provided the more useful and workable way of addressing things. You pick the level that cuts to the chase, and leave the physical-biological reductionism aside until when it actually matters.
It is entirely sufficient to state that, if one wishes to make changes, commitment is necessary. Invoking neurons and brain adds nothing. It is entirely sufficient to state that feedback on one’s progress is important in sustaining motivation, or that engrained habits are hard to overcome. Bringing the brain into it adds nothing. If anything, invoking “the brain” makes “us” feel like mere bystanders, rather than active participants.
Again, sorry to be a wordy sourpuss. This is just a sore spot with me.
October 5, 2010 at 2:47 pm #112260
Great article! It would seem that a group of intelligent individuals following your guidelines would be successful at affecting change but then you have this counter-intuitive finding from recent research:
“An early effort at defining general intelligence in groups suggests that individual brainpower contributes little to collective smarts.
Instead, it’s social awareness — the ability to pick up on emotional cues in others — that seems to determine how smart a group can be.”
Now it is just one study but it does point toward some interesting implications for organizational change.
October 5, 2010 at 3:26 pm #112258
In the 1930’s and 40’s, Gestalt psychologists made clear the premise that the first important step to solving a problem is identifying and defining the problem. When a group is not all on the same page with respect to understanding the problem to be solved, they are effectively solving different problems. Small wonder that those groups with less overall insight into each others’ perspective, emotional or otherwise, are less effective. Also one of the reasons why groups with leaders that are better able to pick up on disparate perspectives within a group, and actively create common understanding, will do better.
To be sure, book-smart and stuff-smart IS important, but people-smart will take you farther than book-smart and stuff-smart just about every time.
Of course, read people like Steven Ceci or Robert Sternberg, and you might come to the conclusion that much of what we like to label as smart IS really people-smarts.
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