The Rules of Change Management

1. Stay on message. The brain needs repetition to move a concept from the prefrontal cortex, which handles unfamiliar concepts and complex decisions, to the basal ganglia, where habits are stored. For new concepts to become hardwired, those pathways have to be reinforced continually.

2. Keep it simple. The prefrontal cortex can entertain only a handful of concepts at a time. Therefore, complex projects need to be refined to one or two goals that businesspeople can easily understand so that their prefrontal cortexes do not become overwhelmed, causing fatigue and the psychological and physical distress that leads to anger.

3. Expect fear. When the decision-making part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) becomes overwhelmed, it sends out signals to the primitive area of the brain (the amygdala) that controls the fight-or-flight response. This generates feelings of fear, anger and sadness. Budget for these emotions in your staff.

4. Let them own the change. There is one aspect of change that scientists believe generates pleasurable sensations: the epiphany, that moment of personal insight when people feel they personally have come to terms with an issue.

5. Lead by not leading. The prefrontal cortex is always on high alert, looking for signals that all is not right. Ordering people around, painting pictures of the world that don’t line up with people’s own realities or goals, or even offering friendly, well-meaning advice can produce distracting, fearful sensations.

6. Show, don’t tell. Learning what to do elicits pleasurable sensations; being told what to do causes the brain to produce fearful, angry messages.

7. Provide experience. People resist change because they can’t imagine what it will be like to fill a role different from the one they know. Allowing people to experience epiphanies in a new role in a controlled, safe way—such as putting an IT person to work in a retail bank before starting a project there—can help everyone adapt.

8. Focus on the big picture. Even though our brains all share some basic, high-level wiring, our life experiences make each of us unique; therefore, there is no way to paint a detailed picture of a complex project or change that will look the same to everyone.

9. Seek compliance before commitment. Neither rewards nor punishments lead to the personal epiphanies that people need to experience in order to change. Clarify what people need to do, then step aside, allowing them to discover the benefits of the new processes for themselves.

10. Make it a personally relevant story. Well-told stories are powerful. But they need to speak to the personal interests of the people affected by the change in order to appeal to the prefrontal cortex, placate the amygdala and spark the epiphanies that allow people to change.

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