Revolution or Trend?
Neuroscience today is a hot topic. It wasn’t always. My fascination with the brain and leadership began in the late 90’s. At the time, mentioning the topic at a cocktail party was the quickest way possible to clear the room. Fast forward to today: The topic is so popular as to endanger it of appearing to be the next in an endless wave of leadership and organization development crazes. For me, the critical point of distinction isn’t its current trendy status, but its long term potential to provoke a revolutionary mind shift in leaders and organizations, enabling us to leverage the best of human potential.
The answer is that the application of neuroscience to business stands apart from other approaches. Biology, especially brain science, is the meta-model underlying all other effective frameworks. A deep understanding of biology has the power to change our fundamental approach to running organizations and to help us discard outmoded ways of thought. Equally, it can be used to validate, choose and fine-tune the tools and models which hold promise for forming brain-friendly organizations. Biology isn’t a model. It’s the basis of all models that work.
Man is not designed to be an island.
While modern Western society lives under the pretext that we operate as individuals who choose our actions day in and day out, neuroscience is rapidly disproving the notion. The vast majority of our behavior is caused by a “hidden brain” that produces reactions largely through instinct, habit and early emotional programming. We are social animals designed to work in concert with the actions of others. Our capacity for conscious individual and volitional choice is limited.
We’ve created an environment out of sync with our biology.
The human brain has a unique capacity: we can think into the future, imagine new possibilities and coordinate action with others to consciously innovate. Through language, we pass our learning from generation to generation. These super powers have created a huge irony: the future we’ve created is radically out of sync with our default biological programming.
Automatic responses that once worked well now produce errors.
Humans are designed optimally for life on the African Savannah. Often, the same instincts that operate perfectly on the Savannah fail to produce the correct action in today’s world. Humans have gone through many profound lifestyle shifts, from the discovery of fire and metallurgy, to agriculture and the industrial revolution, to the present. With each new evolution away from the conditions for which we were designed, we fill the gap between instinct and lifestyle with societal rules and cultural norms designed to externally moderate behavior. In the past, we had centuries, if not millennia, to get the rules right. Today, we are lucky if we have months.
The pace of change has outstripped our capacity to develop stable norms.
We are faced with an unparalleled degree of complexity and accelerating change, outstripping our ability to create stable systems of governance. The world we live in now requires different skills and capabilities than any other in which humans have lived previously. Our interactions have become increasingly virtual and global, the amount of information we’re asked to process increases daily, the number of choices and distractions are mind numbing, and the changes continue to come unabated.
Flexibility, resilience, intelligence and creativity matter more than ever.
In the modern workplace, value is created through an individual or group’s ability to learn, to think in novel ways, to decipher what’s relevant within the non-stop avalanche of information, and to make good decisions quickly. Taking products from ideas to fruition necessitates collaboration, smooth coordination of action with others and the ability to build process. The speed of change demands resilience, flexibility and the capacity to adapt quickly to market conditions.
We must now adapt in real time.
Meeting the challenges of the modern world requires the ability to directly manage our biology. We must understand our automatic programming, design to leverage it when advantageous and overcome it when detrimental. Equally important, we must learn how to manage the precious and limited brain resources capable of consciously calling the shots. The organizations we build will be effective and sustainable only to the degree they are created in consonance with our biology.