Training Neuroscience DevelopmentYesterday was a crystalline, sunny day in London. For those who know the city, you’ll know that this is rare enough that the sunny-day aim becomes simple: get outside for as long as possible to absorb Vitamin D and the bonhomie that you find in a group of pleasantly surprised people.  But I was unusually happy to be inside for a few hours yesterday. I was teaching MBA students on the London Business School ‘Managing Change’ course, and if you care about how business operates, of course you care about its future leaders, and want to talk to them – however blue the sky.

What Kind of ‘CHANGE’ Are We Managing?

When we talk about managing change, the implication is usually that we’re trying to shift the way a team or an organisation operates. Let’s be more collaborative! We should be more innovative! Or, perhaps as often these days: let’s focus on the core! But change doesn’t happen at scale unless change happens in individuals’ behaviour. (Collaborate! Innovate! Focus! Yes, you!) And people already have their nicely constructed routines and rhetoric about why those routines are good; change involves people rewriting parts of their internal dialogue about their sense of self and how they contribute to the organisation. That’s pretty deep, which is one of the reasons that change is hard, and why personal behavioural change is what I decided to talk about at LBS.

Let’s Take One Example: Dealing Better with Information Overload

I wanted to work with a real example, so the one I chose was a democratic one that we could each relate to.  What change is affecting all people, everywhere? The increase in the availability of information through steady technological advance.  This kind of change is not a discrete change programme launched by a company – but it’s change that’s being woven into the fabric of how we all work. You can pick your own favourite piece of data on the factual backdrop to the issue – the number of emails, the volume of internet traffic, and so on. Mine right now is that the amount of data created in 2011 (1.8 zetabytes) is equivalent to 27,000 years of constant tweeting from everyone in your country, though some countries have to type faster than others for that statement to be true – in the US at a leisurely rate of 3 tweets a minute; in the UK at a frenzied rate of 15 a minute.

In some ways this is the perfect example, because the benefits of this change at scale are clear to everyone. There are clear benefits to leaders and managers from greater volume, pace, breadth of information availability. This information makes it easier to see into your organisation, to respond quickly to customers, to involve employees.  The problem is the unintended consequences for individuals: fragmentation of time and attention as we frantically multitask around our emails, our RSS feeds, our social media. I’ve written more on this elsewhere, but briefly, and terrifyingly, here is a selection of robust findings from neuroscience and experimental psychology on the personal dimensions of information overload (summarizing crudely the work of people like Marois, Amabile, Hallowell and Fredrickson):

  • Multitasking makes you less rather than more productive. We don’t want to hear it, but the truth is that when we are juggling (messages, calls, chat) we slow down and error rates increase, because our brain has to work much harder than we first thought in order to switch from topic to topic.
  • We almost always become less creative when time is pressured, as our worried ‘basic’ brain goes into protective mode and narrows the focus of our ‘higher’ brain to cope with the threat of overload and failure.  Our thinking becomes simpler, more black and white, less able to handle complexity.
  • We in fact need a degree of positive emotion and mental downtime, or what de Bono has called a ‘creative pause’, to do our best thinking about the toughest issues.  Constantly checking messages does not deliver this high-performance state.

The Sage Advice on What People Should Do Differently – and Why It’s Not Enough

So, how to get the benefits of this particular change and minimize the costs? As ever, there are practical things we should be shifting in our behaviour.  Like:

  • More focusing. Get smarter in how we organize our days to create longer uninterrupted blocks of time, to allow us to go deep enough to tackle our most important work with our best thinking.  Batch our consumption of data and messages so that we minimize the switching costs
  • More filtering. Get way clearer on what we personally should be spending time on, where we add most value. Be bolder in delegating, deprioritising or dropping any flows of information that don’t help us achieve those most important goals.
  • More forgetting. Create more deliberate mental downtime, to give ourselves the unfettered ‘in the shower’ creative insights that come from generating space to think in a less linear way.

Still shocked by the evidence on this topic, I can go on at length about this. And the evidence clearly matters – unless we believe the rationale for changing our behaviour, we’re not going to make any effort in that direction.

But let’s assume for now that we ‘get it’, and that we’ve decided that something has to change.

Then, the meat of the issue, to my mind, is not the advice or the evidence. The real point is the ‘yes but’ that gets in the way when people go to put these or any other ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ into play.

The External ‘YES BUTS’

Some of these ‘yes buts’ relate to the external world and its constraints.  Every time I run this kind of session, there is lots of discussion about what it’s possible to change and not possible to change given the norms around you: ‘I get it, but how can I switch off my phone? They’ll all expect me to reply instantly.’ There are genuinely some things you can’t change – the routine of the boss who never sleeps, the time the markets open. But in my experience, if there’s a change we want to make that rubs against the norm but is not actually flat-out crazy, most situations are open to clearer, bolder contracting with colleagues, if we can be compelling in how we do it. That means being clear on the benefits to our organisations, clear on how it will be good for our work, and clear on how people will still get what they need.  Some examples I’ve seen:

  • Automated responses that set clear expectations: ‘I check my messages twice a day at 9am and 5pm. Between those times I am typically in working sessions with my team. If you have a more urgent message you can text me on… ‘
  • An internal service team that set an explicit norm of getting back to people within 48 hours. People have the right to say if their request is more pressing but they know that it will in any case be dealt with in a reasonable time
  • With an always-on boss, agreeing to be ‘on’ for 90% of the time but that 10% of time is invested in more focused time on the ‘issues that never get solved without serious effort’
  • Several senior groups I’ve worked with who have agreed to a ‘smartphone crèche’ in important meetings.  They get to visit and soothe the smartphones at defined breaks. I’m not joking.

But to make changes to our habits and assert new norms to those around us, we need both confidence and will. And that’s often where the real ‘yes but’ issue lies. We have to believe that changing our behaviour is of real benefit to us, and we have to rebuild our internal dialogue around the new behaviour in a way that feels as good and strong as the old script. Otherwise, as with New Year’s Resolutions, the intention to change will dissolve into a fog of good intent and regret.

Dealing with the Internal ‘YES BUT’

Here’s one way of thinking about it. There are many voices in the internal dialogue we have about our actions and choices, and some speak louder than others. Loudest is the simple way we describe our behaviour.  A shade behind that is the justification we provide ourselves for that behaviour. Quieter, but very powerful, is the voice of the assumptions that we make to justify our behaviour. Quieter still, and more powerful still, are the deeper needs we have as social beings – for example to be liked, valued, respected. We rarely articulate these out loud at all.

If we lecture ourselves or others about the need to change whilst talking only to the loudest voice, we’ll think we’ve done our job. And then we’ll be disappointed when the other voices prove just loud enough to drown it out.  What can we do differently?  We can engage directly with the quieter voices.  Let me give you an example from the kind of conversations we had yesterday at LBS.  Imagine two people, one person having asserted that he wants to get better at switching off his smartphone, the other (in italics) trying to help him get to some insight about how he might actually manage that.  Here are some samples of that conversation:

What’s the behaviour you want to change?

  • ‘I don’t switch off my [branded smartphone].’  (What, not ever?) ‘Essentially, no. I mean I’m not looking at it when I’m asleep, but otherwise I’m pretty much connected all the time. I’ve seen the research, I know that multitasking is bad for your health. I know I’m frazzled and not thinking straight a lot of the time.’

What’s the reason you behave that way?

  • ‘Well, I want to do a good job. I want to look responsive. I need to come up with the right answer.’

So what assumptions are you making there? 

  • ‘I’m assuming that the best way to come up with the best answers is to stay connected at all times otherwise I might miss something.’  (Like what?) ‘Well some information that might help me somehow.’

What’s the deeper need driving this?

  • ‘Well I want to feel I’m valued.  Or, to put it another way, that people see I’m really doing my best.’

So what really feels at stake for you?

  • ‘The question of whether I’m really committed. I’m worried they’ll think I’m not committed if I’m not available all the time.’

And then we need to speak to each of these with a respectful but challenging tone. Something like this:

OK, so, what do you want to do differently? 

  • ‘I need to be more thoughtful, less stressed. So I want to switch off my phone more’

Why’s that – what’s the benefit to you?

  • ‘I want to be a really creative thinker. Really good at finding answers to tough problems.’

Can you challenge the assumptions underpinning your current behaviour?

  • ‘Well I said that the best way to come up with answers is to stay connected. It’s only part of the story. You need information. But actually all the best results have come from locking ourselves away in a room for a bit and thinking freely.’

So what’s a more sophisticated assumption, that you actually believe?

  • ‘That I do my best work when I do my best thinking, and that means I need some more expansive, less compressed thinking time. I’ve seen the research, I do believe it. You don’t have to bang on about it’
  • (Is there one thing that sticks in your mind that you can remind yourself about that?) ‘Good enough for Bill Gates. He takes time out to think. I read that in a blog last week’

OK, let’s talk about the deeper stuff. Does your fear stand up to scrutiny?

  • ‘You mean, is it realistic that people would see me as not committed if I switched off more?’ *sighs* ‘Realistically, probably not. They told me last week that I was generating good work. It’s not about working shorter hours. I’m doing other things to signal my engagement beyond gluing my forehead to my phone, I guess.’

And what is it you really need?  Can you set aside the need underpinning the old behaviour, or get that need met in a different way?

  • ‘I’m not going to set aside the importance of feeling valued or doing a good job. Obviously. But I could do more to solicit feedback, or actually notice it when people praise me. I’m not very good at hearing that stuff.’

So what’s the experiment you want to run now?

  • ‘I’m going to try switching it off for a bit. Maybe an hour.’  (When?) Tomorrow. (When tomorrow?) *consults diary* ‘Um, 6-7pm.’
  • (What are you going to tell people?) ‘I’ll tell people I’m focusing on a task that needs attention to really nail it, and that I’ll get back to them a bit later if they need me.‘
  • (What are you going to tell yourself to encourage yourself?) ‘That more of this is how I’ll do my best work. That I want to be Bill Gates.’

Now, to do a full reconstruction of internal dialogue obviously takes longer than this. But the striking thing is that mostly, we don’t do it AT ALL, and we still expect to be able to change our own behaviour and that of others. These students worked with the time they had, and had a crack at these speed coaching conversations with each other and after just 15 minutes of high-energy talk, they reported a surprising degree of release (‘it was great to realize I wasn’t alone in feeling this way’), reflection (‘I got to the bottom of things surprisingly quickly’) and practical resolve to make things better.

Which is good, because it’s not been as sunny today.

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