Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.


Who are “the most fully, crucially adaptive human beings around”? And what does this finding mean for Change Management?

Seeing as the real punch line is why, let’s get the answer on the table: teenagers.  That’s right.

Let’s face it – we were all teenagers once so we should be able to relate to this. The October 2011 issue of National Geographic explores “Teenage Brains – Beautiful Brains” and got me thinking – not only about my own teenage years and those of my sons, but also why some people are more open to change than others.  This particular article considers a phase of human development from roughly 15 – 25 years old and sheds light on the importance of physiology and brain science, in understanding adaptability.

The core of the neuroscience is this (stay with it, it is foundational information):

“…the brain’s axons—the long nerve fibers that neurons use to send signals to other neurons—become gradually more insulated with a fatty substance called myelin (the brain’s white matter), eventually boosting the axons’ transmission speed up to a hundred times. Meanwhile, dendrites, the branchlike extensions that neurons use to receive signals from nearby axons, grow twiggier, and the most heavily used synapses—the little chemical junctures across which axons and dendrites pass notes—grow richer and stronger. At the same time, synapses that see little use begin to wither. This synaptic pruning, as it is called, causes the brain’s cortex—the outer layer of gray matter where we do much of our conscious and complicated thinking—to become thinner but more efficient. Taken together, these changes make the entire brain a much faster and more sophisticated organ.”

Which adds up to this:

The resulting account of the adolescent brain—call it the adaptive-adolescent story—casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.”

And this:

“”This makes the period when a brain area lays down myelin a sort of crucial period of learning—the wiring is getting upgraded, but once that’s done, it’s harder to change.”” Quote from Douglas Fields, an NIH neuroscientist who has spent years studying myelin.

So … “once that is done” (the laying down of myelin which solidifies learning) … “it’s harder to change”.  So there it is – in science:  it is harder for adults over 25 to change than it is for ‘youth’.

Many “ah has” jumped out of this article for me, including:

  • a deeper respect for neural imaging scans and the intensive analytics of researchers
  • a deeper understanding of why adolescents are so much more physiologically open to change (defined in those years as excitement, novelty, risk and the company of peers) than mature adults
  • an appreciation for the benefits of including youth, in a balanced way, in: politics, communities and even organizational planning

It also struck me that understanding a generation (X, Y, Boomer or whatever) is a dynamic and moving target.  And, for example, as we consider change communications in our organizations we will be well advised to take this into account. Consider change communications for call centers where the agents are often in this age grouping, according to this research they will respond differently than their supervisors, managers, and directors purely based on their age (brain development).

There are a lot of dimensions in “in flight” initiatives as organizations undertake transformation and some practitioners might retreat from this complexity to accommodate their own (or sponsor’s) needs for speed and simplicity.  However, the real competitive opportunity comes from leaning into this, from embracing and understanding the science of how we change. 

Likewise, we have a tendency to ignore brain physiology when we talk about leadership, strategic planning, critical thinking, analysis, decision making, communications and even interpersonal diplomacy – in fact, when considering any business function.  Perhaps in much the same way we treat our cars – we get in and drive.  Perhaps we should think more like pilots who, with 50+ lives in their hands (including their own), run through a comprehensive checklist before, during and after every flight.  What if we were all more attentive to our own ‘vehicles’ and those in our ‘fleet’?

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Gail, nicely done. I wonder if this is some neuroscience behind the axiom, “the world belongs to the young”?

We know the brain is plastic and can physically change. I wonder if there are ways of communicating and having conversations that overcome in some way the limitations that emerge simply as a function of physically growing up?

Well done, thanks.

Bill

Comment by billbraun

Like it Gail! I’ll mention your blog on CMRsite.com in just a bit. But for now, I’ve got a new curation tool and I’ve cited some excerpts of your post there: http://www.scoop.it/t/change-leadership-vision It’s a bit too easy compared to the various steps needed for the WordPress route.

I’m smiling as you and Kotter are currently sharing the page, and you’ve got prime position. Such is curation at the moment!

I’m knocking around and will add something from Daryl soon… Still have video awaiting editing from ACMP 2011!

Warm regards, brain sci fan! –Deb

Comment by dnrevel

[…] For more, on generations and science, see Gail’s full post here. […]

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