The science behind managing change

scienceChange management is often referred to as a soft discipline and its disciples as tree huggers. The tangible benefits it provides a project are frequently questioned with many a senior executive, and yes even CEOs, dismissing it as an unnecessary part of delivering a project. No wonder McKinsey Consulting research found that over 70% of projects fail to deliver their original benefits. The science behind change now demands it be given greater attention when planning any project.

As an ex science teacher, and self-confessed brain geek, I became fascinated about the science behind delivering sustainable change. The principles discussed in this article apply equally to work related change or changes in your personal life. As a science teacher I taught biology, chemistry and physics and now as a business strategy consultant I am intrigued by the similarities between the fields.

In the world of chemistry, a change involves making or breaking bonds between atoms. The same can be related to changes in the workplace. You are trying to break the bonds with the old and replace them with stronger bonds with the new by applying catalysts to speed up the reaction. The same is relevant in workplace change – to speed up change you need a catalyst which is real, relevant, acknowledged by those changing, and that introduces urgency into the change process.

In physics Newton’s third law states, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Meaning that change or movement cannot occur without a force being applied to the object that is greater than the force holding it in its current state. So when you are planning a change you need to identify the areas of resistance and plan for applying sufficient leverage to be able to move the business from its current state to its new state.

When we talk about biological change, one typically refers to Darwin’s evolution and how when changes are gradual species may be able to adapt. However when the change is large there is likely to be significant collateral damage as many will be unable to adapt to the speed of the changes e.g. dinosaurs and the ice age. The same applies with everyday change. Small changes are much easier to make than large transformational change and understandably the larger the change the greater the number of casualties.

While these similarities are interesting, it is when we start to apply the findings from today’s advancements in technology and science that we can really understand change management at a physiological level and its significance for change management. The latest research in neuroscience using the most up-to-date MRI machines provides scientific evidence that change management is in fact a hard discipline and should be one of the first considerations in planning a project rather than an afterthought, as it is often relegated to. Delivering change is not only about processes, systems and profits. Underlying it are the people who are being asked, often commanded to change, operate and support this new world.

Malcom Gladwell famously concluded that to really become a master of anything it takes about 10,000 hours of effort. We readily accept this when we refer to Olympians and professional sports people, after all they train from a young age in their sports, perfecting it day in, day out. However, consider how much time people generally put into the tasks they do at work, 10,000 hours converts to about 5 years of someone working 40 hour weeks. Chances are that a lot of staff in any workplace are masters of their ‘workstation domain’.

During the 10,000 hours we build up muscle memory and pathways within our brains that make us masters of the tasks we undertake. In the early stages of learning something new we may find that the required actions aren’t natural, however as we put in the hours they eventually become like second nature and become the habits we rely on in our mastery. Whenever we want our bodies to undertake an action we rely on messages being sent from the brain to the particular part of the body we are wanting to instruct. These messages are sent through electrical currents from one cell to another via the cell’s neurons. These messages travel through the brain and nervous system along pathways to reach the end point, these are called neural pathways.

If we require the body to carry out the same action repeatedly messages are sent along the same neural pathways. Just like a bodybuilder who builds his muscles up by training the same muscles over and over, the more we use our neural pathways the stronger they become. After doing this many times these messages can be transmitted unconsciously along these pathways, which is where true mastery comes into it. Obviously, if you start to change a task new neural pathways must be created and over time the strength of the old ones diminish. However, they are unlikely to ever fade away completely – remember the old saying “it’s like learning to ride a bike, you never forget”.


Imagine the impacts of asking someone to do something different that, in their minds, they had already mastered (put the 10,000 hours in). You are asking this person to step into the unknown, a state which is often accompanied by stress and fear. If the brain perceives these changes as threats then it automatically triggers an unconscious response in the part of the brain called the Amygdala which sends a distress signal to the Hypothalamus which then communicates to the body to get ready to either ‘fight or flight’.

This state of heightened awareness and readiness involves the adrenal glands sending adrenaline, or more specifically Cortisol, around the body causing the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to increase and blood to be pumped to the vital organs which cannibalises the glucose and blood from you non-essential organs. As doctors continue to remind us, being in this heightened state for long periods of time is not good for us and can lead to heart disease, strokes, and mental health issues. The impacts in the work place are costly in the form of staff turnover, increased sick leave and reduced productivity.

If Cortisol, the stress hormone, was a super hero then its arch nemesis would be Oxytocin, the love or bonding hormone. Oxytocin helps us be more social, enjoy a more positive outlook and also enables us to interact normally with others and our environment. Cortisol in contrast often creates tunnel vision and anxiety which blocks a person’s ability to learn, interact or change.

As a self defence mechanism Cortisol takes longer to be absorbed by the body than Oxytocin. This makes sense in that things that scare us, or can harm us should be avoided and therefore they will take a higher priority in our brains than pleasure does. For change practitioners this means that when stakeholders are scared of something there is a reduced likelihood of them being able to change, whereas if you provide positive reinforcement, encouragement and training then people have a greater chance of being able to adapt.

The determining factor about which hormone our body will produce, and as a result how we are going to react, is how we interpret the messages we observe. Our brains rely on information being provided to our brains through our senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) and then our cerebral cortex takes over and interprets the information we have received. The cerebral cortex is the communications centre of the brain that takes the information and attempts to make sense of it based on the person’s past experiences, values and beliefs. These influencers must be considered when communicating about changes that will impact someone. That is why it is critical to ensure the message was received as intended. Effective communications are all about ensuring we deliver messages in a way that the receiver will understand, relate to and be able to process based on their current understanding of their world. A good way to sum up good communications is to deliver the right message, by the right channel, at the right time to the right people.

When you consider the long term physiological and psychological negative impacts that result from poorly implemented changes, it is surprising that in today’s highly regulated workplace health and safety environment that organisations aren’t seeing more workplace compensation claims for poorly managed change. After all, when you consider the science behind change, its impacts can be as damaging as workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

© Gary Waldon and 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gary Waldon and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The science behind managing change

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