I’m pleased to observe that there are more people now following this blog. I intend to reward your interest with information that is useful and applicable. This entry is to introduce a specific new focus: Change Management Neuroscience. This growing field examines behavior within organizations from the perspective of neuroscience, specifically with reference to how organizations can succeed when they wish to make major changes. I encourage your comments about entries, ideas, discoveries you’ve made about the field, or even about the whole field itself. Your comments will help me know what particularly catches your interest, or even catches you off guard (something you didn’t know, or are not sure about).
First we need a little background about how to come to this information. As a neurologist I have found it practical to come at behavior as if there is no such thing as a Cartesian Duality – a separation of mind and brain (as attributed to Rene Descartes, from about 1650). The mind-brain duality has been a popular notion for a very long time. However, new types of brain scans and other techniques of brain investigation are showing “the mind” in action – in the brain. For example, new studies show – via solidly objective data – that we may have completed a choice hundreds of milliseconds before we even “know” we’ve completed a choice. A few hundred milliseconds doesn’t seem like much; however, it opens the door to critical concepts that place the mind squarely in the neurons of the brain. The story we’ve accepted since the middle of the 17th century is dissolving.
In this era, it is useful and practical to presume behavior is all about brain – that the mind is a collection of functions within the brain. This is not a comfortable position for all people. Yet, it is a highly useful perspective when we wish to understand our actions, and their foundations. If we place the origins of behavior in a mind outside the brain then we run into all kinds of practical problems. For example, how do we explain the logic of action if the controller of action is not even made of anything we can understand? Or, how does such a mind interact with our physical brain? Since many people like the idea of a mind separate from the brain there are certainly authors who go to great lengths to satisfy those desires. For example, Jeffrey Schwartz, MD, at UCLA has advocated quantum mechanics as a route to explain how a separate mind would interact with a physical brain (The Mind and The Brain, Schwartz JM and Begley S, Regan Books, 2002). Is such a thing possible? Perhaps – many things are possible. Yet, we really have to reach to attempt such connections. Quantum mechanics is a popular sound byte these days; but, when you delve into it, the role quantum mechanics might play in daily behavior is very debatable and has no solid confirmation.
I’ve seen many, many people literally loose their minds – from brain trauma, from drugs, from brain infections, and other brain structural disorders. I have had to work with families when we (collectively) felt it was in the best interests of the patient to stop machines upon the patient’s condition of brain death. At those times we didn’t struggle with “mind death”. No one seemed to struggle with the notion that the brain might be dead but the mind might be fine, and should continue to be supported (however one would do that).
For many, many reasons I’ve simply found it more practical to look for the origins of behavior within the confines of the brain. Thus upon coming to the issue of behavior of people within organizations, I come from the perspective of understanding behavior as something which may be explained within the realms of science. Put bluntly, there is a science to organizational behavior. That science allows us to understand organizational change as also a science. To be sure, we don’t yet know everything about that science. There is room for debate about important issues. Yet, if we are diligent we can discover science within organizational change. From that science we can find appropriate ways to help change within organizations be efficient, effective, and optimally adaptive. This is the neuroscience of organizational change. This is what we will explore.
Haven’t people who’ve been doing organizational change been using science, such as science from psychology? Yes. There is science to psychology. That science proceeds based on using scientific tools to look at behavior itself. What is new is that we are now looking at the origins of behavior in the brain. From this new level of insight we are discovering new ways to approach behavior within organizations. We are gaining a deeper understanding regarding how evolution has built neuronal systems that operate on logic that is “logical” only from the perspective of evolution.
In books such as Dan Ariely’s “The Upside of Irrationality” we learn that behaviors very relevant to business are often not “rational”. That is, they follow rules that our conscious, frontal-lobe logic does not see as rational. But, from a deeper evolutionary perspective the “irrational” behavior may be seen as very rational – using the logic of behavioral paradigms set in motion much earlier in evolution. For interesting explorations of such insights I refer you to Dan Ariely’s book, or to Shankar Ventantam’s “The Hidden Brain”, or to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”.
As we make the neuroscience explorations here rest assured that this is not going to be a very arcane descent into complex neurophysiology. We’re going to keep it simple. To bring neuroscience to organizational change we don’t need to understand convoluted neurological details. We need practical insights, for people who want to get the job done – people who want to build effective, adaptive change – probably just like you.
Stay tuned. It’s interesting stuff.