The new science of change

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 26, 2006
Filed in Culture

I enjoyed reading this article this morning on some of the neuroscience behind change and some of the practical approaches you might adopt armed with this knowledge. Here are the sections of the article with one or two sentences highlighting key ideas.

  • A Universal Truth – brain science is giving us new insights into how and why people change (or resist it).
  • Why Change is Painful – there is physical and psychological discomfort when we are faced with change. We get overwhelmed as the prefontal cortext is overworked—short term memory and where we perform our mental gymnastics. We fall back on our basal ganglia, which is our intellectual work horse. The patterns here are more fixed and resilient to change.

  • Carrot and Stick: The Flaw – this approach is like training animals. Doesn’t have a long-term effect on the individual. It can have a system-wide effect, for example getting all entire sales force to increase the number of customers in South America.
  • Not Your Change; Their Change – People hate being told what to do. It is better to show people examples and have them have their own epiphanies. This means painting a broad picture of the future and resist filling in all the gaps so there is room for people to envisage how the future might unfold.
  • How Questions Provide Answers: A Case Studied – The article highlighted questions as a good way for people to engage in a idea. I was also say stories help enormously. Here’s a guide to collecting stories you might like.
  • The Joy of Repetition – The insight or epiphany is merely the trigger. People need repetition of the idea for the new connections to be made.
  • Not Your Motivation, Theirs – Learning is a big part of change. Learning programs need to be at the core of the change programme.
  • The Hard Edge of the Soft Stuff – Be patient. Change takes time.

[via Stephanie West Allen]

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. While I agree with the way how you interpret it, I have serious problems with the original article:
    – the universal truth part: the talk about “this part of the brains sends impulese there” etc. is just a current idea abolut how the mind works. In a way, it’s just another metaphor, a model. It’s not the real thing.
    – the whole approach is highly manipulative. It’s written from the perspective of the CIO desperate about finding better ways to overcome resistance to a goal that has already ben decided upon.
    – In that case it’s about ITIL ( ). I would have resisted as well. ITIL is an awful framework to work in (not to be discussed here). So people might have valid, rational (as opposed to emootional/brainchemical), content-driven reasons to resist change – the change might REALLY be a bad idea.

  2. Thanks Christian for you thoughts on this one. Totally agree that these popular descriptions are merely metaphors of what is actually happening. But with all metaphors there is a point where is breaks down.
    I didn’t find the approach manipulative. I thought it was trying to be explainatory and in fact gave little direction on how you might use the ideas in practice.
    My interpretation was that the change needed to be co-created with the stakeholders. I’ve been thinking about this today as a journey (nothing new there) that must be created 3 times. The first time the senior management team describes the change journey and resists filling all the gaps. The second journey involves the SMT and the other stakeholders descrbing the journey. The 3rd journey is for real and you must embark on this journey in the full knowledge the it will not turn our like either journey 1 or 2 suggested.
    ITIL looks awful. A total misunderstanding of how people learn. Remind me to run for cover when ITIL starts heading in my direction 🙂

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