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How Neuroscience Makes a Difference for Change Acquisition?

It's only just a little more than a decade ago that we started really understanding Change Acquisition. We knew that change acquisition was what people actually applied and adopted into practice as a result of workshops, coaching, team development, and change management efforts. But without access to what goes on inside the brain, we were mostly in the dark in terms of how to get people to actually do the adoption or application part.

Over the years, we got extremely good at diagnosing the current state and defining what end-result, effective performances look like. Unfortunatly, how to get people from point A to point B was still somewhat foggy. We can share the best practices and skills with people, but how do we get them to buy-in and make needed sustainable behavioral changes?

There is this saying, "you can bring a horse to water but you can't make it drink." That totally applied to traditional change models. I remember the feeling well. All we could do was deliver the best water, but if people listened, then went back to their desk and adopted little if any of what we shared with them, there was really nothing we could do about it.

The exciting part is that thanks to neuroscience, this hidden, mysterious, seemingly out of our area of influence part of change is now revealed. It's true that in the end you can't force anyone to change. In the end, it is a choice. But going back to the horse analogy, we now know how to make the water much more enticing. We know how to get the brain ready, metaphorically getting the horse to walk a long distance in the hot sun and the water looking so fresh and inviting, that the brain easily prefers to engage.

Before neuroscience, we had no access to what goes on in the middle. So we became really good at teaching the end part. We had to be highly effective at the diagnosis and goal setting aspects. When we wanted people to adopt more effective leadership styles, we learned and provided our clients with everything there is to know about effective leadership. We "broke" effective leadership into digestible pieces and we got people to practice those desired effective leadership behaviors. These are really valuable assets but unfortunately, without understanding the middle part, many change efforts had more time and energy investments to show for than people adopting needed changes.

When we wanted people to adopt a new culture, we drew the behaviors associated with the new culture as clearly as humanly possible for people. We helped them see the value of the new culture and the rational behind it. We provides training and we tried to make the new culture tangible and accessible for them. Becoming so good at understanding this part of change facilitation will probably always serve us extremely well, but unfortunately, without having access to the changes individuals need to make to adopt new behaviors into practice in a lasting way, many changes reached high levels of awareness but got stuck there.

Thanks to neuroscience, we know what needs to be added to the formula so that people will pick up the necessary parts of what they are presented and integrate it into practice in a sustainable way.

To do that, to fill in the gap between knowing, understanding, accepting and doing and to overcome a wide variety of resistances to change, we need to supplement traditional change models with 3 things:

  • An understanding of the process of Unlearning: Perhaps the biggest reason people don't acquire new ways of doing things in because their goals and the effective ways of acting, thinking, behaving and responding that are aligned with those goals aren't all alone in the playground. When we provide people with new leadership skills, those new skills are competing with pre-existing behaviors and responses which those individuals have practiced for years if not decades. When we are introducing people with effective behaviors associated with a desired new culture, those behaviors will need to overthrow or at least overshadow pre-existing behaviors and responses that do not necessarily align with the new culture. People don't intuitively know how to let go of previously reinforced habits. They need guidance. Thanks to new science, the key new understanding is that not facilitating the process of letting go of previously reinforced ways of doing things will block even the most motivated individuals from being able to adopt new ways of doing things in a lasting way.

  • Providing people with Change-Readiness Skills: The way people respond to the discomfort associated with change depends on their mastery of what we call "Change-Readiness Skills." We've actually known this for a long time, long before scientific developments in the last decade. As a result we try to minimize uncertainty, include people, explain, share, and communicate change to reduce less than ideal ways of responding to the discomfort associated with change. What we didn't realise is that there is a part to how people respond to change that is much more about what they bring to the table than about how we present or deliver the change. The way people respond to change is also tied to how they respond to discomfort in general and there are deep change-specific skills that allow people to have a better skill-set in this department. Providing people with the right skills means not having to deal with the emotional resistance associated with people not wanting to change.

  • An effective accountability structure: When new behaviors need to replace previously reinforced habits, it is hard. Change often requires work but it can be so tempting to choose the path of least resistance. Some people work through this challenge on their own. They hold themselves accountable and work through the discomfort of change long enough for new pathways in the brain to form in a sustainable way. Unfortunately that's not most of. The rest need support to get there. Accountability should be a positive, non-punitive process, but it needs a strong backbone to be effective. Without it, the best workshops, coaching, team development, and change management efforts may fail.

Adding these three components to the highly effective foundation provided by traditional change models provides us with insight. We can now see that middle part, the invisible obstacles, and what is required in order to get new skills and behaviors to stick.

The KCI Change Acquisition Method is a step-by-step process to facilitate unlearning, provide people with Change-Readiness Skills, and put in place an effective accountability structure. If that's relevant in your specific situation, we invite you to check out the KCI training and certification programs, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.

With appreciation,


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