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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Smith

I won’t, I Won’t, I won’t change

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

When you hear the words “things need to change now”, one of two things will happen unconsciously inside your brain.

Either, you will get a boost of dopamine – the chemical of excitement - and this will enthusiastically drive you forwards.

Or, you will get a shot of adrenaline – the chemical of fear and dread - stopping you dead in your tracks.

There are many reasons that we will all need to change soon, not just in how we do things but the very things that we do – not so much about doing things differently but in doing completely different things. That applies as much to business as it does to our personal lives. Change is coming at us from myriad directions all at once and their confluence will generate an exciting or terrifying turbulence, depending how you view it. From nano surgery to new energy forms, from the digital age to the intelligent age and from traditional materials to whole new classes of materials with amazing properties. Technology across many fields, sustainability in all its guises and new forms of work demanding new skills will drive a great deal of that change. Will we be ready, can we cope, will we remain relevant? These are great questions to consider.

It would be interesting to note here which part of the brain would respond well to these questions and which part will not…

There are two very different operating systems inside the brain, the intellectual mind, and the primitive mind.

The intellectual and dopamine fuelled mind is the constantly evolving ‘modern’ part of the brain – it is a fast learner, thrives with innovation, enjoys observing different perspectives and seeks out to explore new territory. This part of the mind is adaptive, flexible, and predominantly solution focused. When we, as human beings can access this part of our mind, we embrace change easily and find our way into our creative space to be able to figure things out and remain curious and open minded.

The primitive, adrenaline fuelled mind is the original part of our brain that we started early human life with – our cave dweller brain. This is also known as our limbic system and is the part of our mind that goes into fight, flight, freeze when stressed and needs constant certainty and consistency to feel safe. In the primitive mind, the familiar feels ‘known’ and therefore is reliable, the unknown is unchartered territory and potentially dangerous, eliciting fear and caution, and can cause an emergency stop.

The limbic system trusts what we know to be true and mistrusts ambiguity. This part of the operating system operates habitually. Habits are essentially repeated patterns of behaviour that become choices that get hardwired into our system are not able to change easily. It is very difficult to make changes from this part of the brain because this part is fixed and much more permanent. It’s very good at risk assessment and is usually set to high alert to look out for threat.

Our primitive mind is our protection, and its job is to keep us safe and out of danger. It delivers a worst-case scenario to keep us alive, so we can make sure we have put sensible measures in place before we look over the steep ledge into the unknown. It will deliver fear, anger and anxiety to us to get our attention to make us stop, look and listen before we act and make a life-threatening mistake.

The primitive mind is not very good at looking to the future optimistically but is very good at looking to the past and holding on to potential mishaps and focusing on problems. It will remind us of negative trends and use historical negative memory to keep us safe.

The primitive mind is good at spotting tigers, but it can’t tell the difference between a paper tiger and a real tiger, so usually will react to a paper tiger in the same way as if it was a real tiger.

The emergence or trends likely to impact us are identifiable and trackable if we choose to look for them and subsequently monitor them. Very few come completely from ‘left field’, even political ones can often signal their emergence if we look hard enough for them. What is harder to imagine is the confluence of trends that cause complete paradigm shifts, where after their impact has been felt nothing is the same again. There are the big ones of course, for example, the wheel, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the internet, penicillin, computers, etc. Each in turn has transformed life as we knew it beforehand.

In a lesser but just as disruptive way, are trends such as the emergence of the cosmeceuticals market where cosmetics, health, and medicine merge to create a whole new sector estimated to be worth billions of pounds. There are a great many such emerging sectors, and you may find that you and your organisation will be impacted. That is the point of looking ahead, in developing foresight and then doing something about it when you understand it.

The understanding of the future in many ways can come from analysing the past trends, with an open mind. If we all understand that the past can shape and redefine the future, but not necessarily have to contain it exactly as it was – surely this would be a very balanced way of embracing change, after all change is inevitable.

The future is a concept that can be planned for and visualised and this planning and visualisation is key to making the thoughts turn into reality.

There are three parts of the brain that are useful to know about when forecasting and trendsetting.

The anterior cingulate cortex hub (ACC) is the part of the mind that can plan for the long term. It is essentially the whiteboard for the mind. Once you brainstorm your idea, your ACC will have a template to be able to follow so it can help you make the right decisions and deliver you the most useful emotions to keep you on track to bring the brainstorm to life.

There is also a bundle of nerves at the brain stem called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). This part of the brain regulates arousal – and drip feeds dopamine (the success and reward chemical) into the brain to activate the attention centre. In other words, it serves as a filter for the brain to notice something and then as the noticing occurs, this can spark a moment of joy, that motivates you to keep going.

There is also the Left Pre-Frontal Cortex (LPfC). This part of the brain is essentially the intellectual mind that can plan, organise, see into the future in a way that tells us that things will go well and we will succeed. Its job is to be optimistic and goal setting and go getting.

It is one of the great mysteries of the last 20 years - why organisations who by and large, thoroughly understand emerging competitors and propositions, that would make them and their traditional offers irrelevant, still couldn’t bring themselves to change, or should we say wouldn’t.

The Swiss watch makers were the first to create a digital watch but failed to recognise its potential impact and the Japanese watch industry boomed. Kodak invented the first digital cameras and they applied them in a limited way to professional photographers. They could not bring themselves to replace their highly profitable film and paper business so left others to do just that and sell digital cameras to their customers. Kodak could not believe people would not want a picture they had taken - they did, but just not on paper. Kodak faltered dramatically at that point. Now they are replaced by mobile phones. And talking about mobile phones, Nokia, the one-time largest company in Europe, was pre-eminent at change. It had earlier been a rubber tree grower and wellington boot manufacturer then morphed into a copper cable company and finally to a mobile phone company. An almost impossible multi-feat of transformation. But they did not recognise that people had stopped buying mobile phones and wanted small computers in their pockets that also made phone calls.

All brilliant and successful, all saw the way ahead and all failed to change and fell away as a result. In fact, half of the Global Fortune 500 companies have disappeared in the last 20 years mostly due to becoming irrelevant. It had little to do with customer advocacy, staff engagement, operational and financial excellence, they just became irrelevant in the eyes of their customers.

If we can, as human beings skilfully bring the two operating systems of the intellectual mind (solution focused) and the primitive mind (problem focused) together and hold our thoughts equally in both spaces (apparently, this is exactly what Einstein could do – so there’s a good role model for us!) Perhaps, this will be a way that we can reference the past and use history as a great lesson – of what worked well as well as what perhaps didn’t go so well and create a brand-new template going forwards of the proposed layout of territory that has not yet been created.

We will be able to embrace change with an open mind and understand that we have also managed as much as we can, the risks and pitfalls. We will know that we can enjoy diving into our uncertain future, and the diving board has been checked out properly and someone has also thought to fill up the pool.

If we invited the intellectual mind that loves positively planning and future-casting and the primitive mind, whose role it is to keep us alive and avoid death, into a meeting with the proviso that they both must work well together to solve this problem:

How can our company stay alive and thrive?

I would think the two forces would collaborate with each other perfectly because the primitive always focuses on the problem and the intellectual always finds the solution.

So, amongst the many reasons why company’s fail is that they just will not change, will you?

Maybe the question to ask is: what would kill my company?

And then do something about the answer you get.

Written in collaboration with Dipti Tait.

If you’re a leader in your organisation please see :

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