Change by any other name

Last Friday (22 June) I enjoyed a talk by Professor Paul Brown at the Association for Coaching Conference in Edinburgh.

For thos who don’t know, Prof Brown is a pioneer of the concept of the Limbic Leader – the premise being that if we understand how the brain makes us behave the way we do, we’d be able to control our behaviours more effectively.

In his workshop, he gave us, his audience, a paper consisting of statements which he invited us to question.

One of the statements was that the brain hates change. And this makes sense. Our brains are high energy consumers which develop neural patterns from experience and relationships to ensure our survival.

Our patterns are created in endless feedback loops. Experience is the collection of patterns our brains reference when we encounter a situation. If the situation is unfamiliar, our brains will make a ‘best match’ with a pre-existing pattern. If the outcome is unhelpful or negative for us our brains may adjust. We learn from experience. If the outcome is not threatening (socially) then we’ll quickly move on, possibly congratulating ourselves on our social grace.

Our brains are adaptive, but they are also protective. After all, they are eternally vigilant of our survival. If they have succeeded in helping us survive in a job, say, they will not take kindly to change in their environment, especially when that change is imposed by other brains (even though those other brains may be responding to environmental change themselves).

Resistance and sabotage are familiar reactions to change. Most change management projects fail to achieve all their objectives. They are usually broken on the wheel of humanity – the so-called ‘soft issues’ which are the hardest to deal with because we have to deal with other people’s subjectivity.

So Professor Brown’s phrase “the brain hates change” made me wonder if it would not be better to talk about adaptation rather the change. And how we communicate and expose others to the environment may be worthy of consideration.

I can’t buy in to management guru metaphors that seek to provoke a reaction. Kotter’s melting iceberg springs to mind.

Our brains won’t buy it unless we experience it for ourselves. And we’ll see through it if it’s not genuine. And if we lose trust in you, our leader/manager, then even experience may not be enough to make us change in a way and at a speed to ensure our survival.



The old adage says ‘what gets measured gets done.’

The question then is, ‘are we measuring the right things?’

Measurement can become a fetish. Some managers and boards feel more secure and in control if they have lots of data. Collecting and analysing data becomes a business function. We easily convince ourselves that measuring everything improves our control of process.

Last night I was at a Change Management Network event in Durham City, UK. One of the speakers, from a successful international company, described a change project around customer service in the call centre.

They discovered that one of their performance measurements actually created a barrier to better customer service. Call centre operatives were previously given optimum targets for the length of calls they dealt with. Once they ran ‘over time’ they naturally tried to get rid of the customer as quickly as possible – hardly conducive to good customer service.

The new regime scrapped the time measure and actually encouraged operatives to become more involved with customers – even to the extent of visiting them! Result: the culture moved quickly from indifference to engagement and customer service improved. Of course, there were other factors involved in the change process which contributed to its success, but I’m often struck by how often organisations employ mechanistic metrics to human relationships in the name of efficiency and how often it is counter productive.

My first encounter with perverse measurement was many years ago in the steel industry. The company made two broad types of product – one was characterised as simple and high volume; the other more complex and specialised and therefore low volume. Most of the company’s profits were generated from the specialised products but the workforce were incentivised to produce greater volume. Result: specialised products were seen as something to avoid. Production put pressure on Sales to keep specialised products to a minimum.

Have you any examples of bad measurement practice?