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« How Aha! Really Happens | Main | Is hierarchy inevitable? Or is the end nigh? »

December 03, 2010


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Lang Davison

Nice posting, Steve, and so true. One thing I see differently, though, is where you say "The irony is that we know how to run our institutions differently."

We may know what the end-state should look like (for instance, a pull- rather than push-oriented institution), today's institutional leaders have very little idea how to actually get there from here, at either the individual or the institutional level.

They're simply wired to do things the old ways. They embody the old behaviors in their brains and nervous systems. And until they can re-map their neurophysiology--again, at both the individual and the institutional level--they won't get there from here, no matter how well intentioned and no matter how many smart books full of progressive management ideas get published.

In this case anatomy really is destiny.


Steve Denning

Hi Lang,

Thanks for the comment. I guess I'm not quite so pessimistic. Otherwise I wouldn't have written my book. :-}

I believe in the adaptability of the human species. It happens in fits and starts, but it happens. We just don't seem to have their full attention right now, even though the pain level of managers is already quite significant.

As your work brilliantly shows, the pain level will steadily increase, as executive turnover accelerates and the life expectancy of firm steadily declines. At a certain point, the pain will be so intense there will no alternative.

So change is inevitable. The only question is when. It could be relatively quick and intelligent. Or it could be slow and horrible. I'm still hopeful that we can get to the former result, even with the "anatomy" that we have.


Lang Davison

Steve, I believe in the adaptability of the species, too. I'm less sanguine about the adaptability of institutions, and institutional leaders, or their ability to change through "intelligence."

What's missing from many management books--including ours--is a sense of how change actually occurs. Why is it that cardiac patients can't change their behavior even with their lives on the line? Why do most big organizational change efforts fail? Etc.

What our best books are missing, in my view--and what Tom Friedman is missing, too--is that change doesn't occur through talking about change. Or reading about it. Or good intentions. Or will-power. Or attention to the problem. Or "making the emotional case for change" (Heath brothers)or by "fostering collaboration" or getting buy-in from the frontline or by communicating in the right way or establishing clear metrics or any of that stuff.

All of it will fail unless the neurophysiology changes first. The science is there to prove this point: change occurs only by re-wiring the neural circuitry of those trying to change, by building new neural pathways that literally embody the change. This gives a new relevance to Gandhi's notion of "being" the change you want to see in the world.

How we accomplish that re-wiring of our neurophysiology is, in my view, the essential question institutions and their leaders face today.


Steve Denning


Could you give us a reference (or two) for: "The science is there to prove this point: change occurs only by re-wiring the neural circuitry of those trying to change, by building new neural pathways that literally embody the change."


Peg Boyles

Ken Resnicow and colleagues have done some interesting work in health-behavior change that provides insight into the topic at hand. They suggest a shift away from prevailing behavior-change models toward a framework that embraces chaos theory and complex adaptive systems (and Bill Miller's "quantum change").

Two Resincow papers worth a long look:

A chaotic view of behavior change: a quantum leap for health promotion

Embracing Chaos and Complexity: A Quantum Change for Public Health Promotion

Lang Davison

Happy to give a few references, Steve.

First let me say that I think most of us would agree that when we're talking about change, we're talking about learning. No learning = no change.

There's considerable evidence for how our neurophysiology is at the center of our ability to learn and change--or why we don't.

See, for instance,"The Neuroscience of Learning," By John W. Collins --

See also, "Brain changes in the development of expertise: Neuroanatomical and neurophysiological evidence about skill-based adaptations," by Hill, N. M., & Schneider, W. (2006). In "The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance" (pp. 653-682). (Sorry couldn't find a link for this one.)

You might also have a look at Kandel, E. R., & Hawkins, R. D. (1995). "Neuronal plasticity and learning." (Sorry couldn't find a link for this one either.)

Finally, there are some good layperson's discussions. See for instance,"The Neuroscience of Learning and Change," on a blog from Ashridge Business School:

Hope this is helpful!


Steve Denning

Lang--Many thanks! I'll check these out.

Dan Beam

Steve & Lang--- Interesting discussion. Many good pts I would add that if the business model is not set up for the 21st Century realities, improving mgt behaviors itself won't cut it. One of the key reasons most of our institutions are failing is that are built on 19th-20th Century business models.

The dominant 21st Century business model is the Platform (Google, Apple, etc.). Tim O'Reilly has been setting up a Gov. 2.0 Platform model to replace the old Vending Machine model of Government. The Stupeski Foundation is working with the Education Secretary to develop an Education Innovation Platform.

This doesn't mean that all organizations have to convert to platform models but they do need to change to other 21st Century models

As Bucky Fuller wisely taught long ago, you make change by introducing a new model that makes the old model obsolete, not by railing against the status quo.

i see it all the time with clients in all sectors. If they don't fundamentally change their business model, management behavior improvements have little chance of moving the change needle.

As Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, so gently put it -"Change your business or go home. "

Thank you both for stimulating the discussion.

---Dan Beam

Steve Denning


Thanks for these great comments. I am inclined to think that you and Lang are both right. You need to change the business model AND you need to change the "wiring" of managers. If you only change the business model, the old behaviors don't work any more. If you only change the behaviors, the business model will inexorably drive you back to the old way of acting.

In an earlier post, I sketched out five big shifts that need to happen simultaneously, if we are to get the change is required: That post was the first in a series of posts. I'll be issuing the second part of that series here shortly.


Steve Denning


Thanks for these references. I strongly agree that we are not dealing with a linear stimulus-response phenomenon, but rather something involving chaos theory and complex adaptive systems.

Once that point is accepted, though, there are still difficult issues to resolve on how to operate effectively in this very different worldview. I have written in my books about the important role that storytelling has to play. Many of the managerial habits that are still prevalent today do not fit the needs of today's workplace.


Lang Davison

@Dan--agree about the business model, and particularly the platform. The shaping strategy work I did with Hagel and JSB ( in fact says platforms are one of three crucial elements in building new business ecosystems that benefit all participants.

Our definition of platform was: a set of standards and practices that organize and support the activities of participants--making it easier and less expensive for them to develop and deliver their own products and services. Think Google AdSense for example.

Yet there may be a form of innovation that's upstream of business model innovation: the "institutional" innovation that takes place across company boundaries. This kind of innovation is a social process encompassing diverse individuals, corporations, communities, networks, and regions. Within that process is the platform of which we speak, helping to support and organize their activities.

Still and all I believe that without the re-wiring the nervous system circuits of institutional leaders it's very difficult to teach old dogs new tricks.

All best,

Deb Mills-Scofield

Great comments & post - and there is a lot of neurochemisty & neurophysiology at play - but at a behavioral level, my experience (my own and watching others) is that until the "pain" is bad enough, people & organisations don't change - and I guess, for now, the 'pain' isn't bad enough - both scale & scope for companies to really take note and have a strong urgency to change - I think this is for many reasons: 1) they have not yet given up on the belief that things will return to a pre-crash definition of normal; 2) they themselves aren't suffering as much as either they could be or others are, because, believe it or not, for many running these institutions, the pain hasn't been that is for the employees, but not the top levels - not bad enough.

I keep thinking of a friend's dad dying of lung cancer who wouldn't stop smoking - his point? i'm going to die anyway so why quit now? So? Many of us see it and have that sense of urgency, but I don't think it's at 'critical mass' yet - which is scary. Until people really recognize the dire need, until it's urgent enough and there is no alternative, this is all nice to hear, philosophical but not real to them...

Just my thoughts...

Gary Lanthrum

Lang's reference to the neurophysiological underpinnings needed for change was very interesting. The link to Ashridge on Learning ( pointed out the difficulty with creating and cultivating new neural highways. It can be done but it is really hard work. One of the challenges with improving business performance through neurophysiological modifications is finding motivation for putting in the effort. When all of the incentives (tax structure, short term stock performance etc)structured around supporting the status quo, change is very unlikely except in small, outlier companies.

Dan Beam

Steve, Lang, et al-- I think we are all in agreement and are elaborating the idea to reach a more three dimensional picture of the challenge/opportunity.

I agree with the institutional platform idea. in fact, along with others I am in the process of designing such an institutional platform . In addition to my consulting company, I am a co-founder of New Voice of Business. We worked with others to pass the Cal. Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), and million solar roofs, among other things. We are now in the early stages of shaping an institutional Innovation Platform to make big change in and through business. Any great references you have on institutional platforms I would love to see.

One more point on the original discussion---in addition to the Biz Model & Behavior issues of change, one of the key issues I see is a lack of strategic imagination that sparks real change. Too many leaders have confined themselves to a small handful of strategic options. They keep returning to the same tired strategies over and over. When we open a wider lens, leaders see options they never considered before. This is where visual strategic thinking and "abductive leap" design thinking come into play(ref. "Designing Companies by Roger Martin).

So let's add that to our bubbling pot of ideas for change.

Great fun---Dan


Another very interesting read on brain plasticity is :

Really makes you think ... but then again for people who aren't used to thinking, this could be detrimental :-)

Steve Denning

Dan & Lang,

While I share your enthusiasm for platforms, both the iPhone variety and the institutional variety like Li & Fung, we also need to keep in mind that platforms are means, not ends. They are tools to attain a goal, and need to be evaluated against the goal: which is to get more value to the client sooner, i.e. to delight the client more. In some areas, platforms will be central. In others, they will be less so.


Bryan Murphy

The challenge of complexity compared to the challenge of simplicity is an everpresent problem. The global economic & political environment is complex and linked as a system and many issues require complex global agreement and action for resolution. For me the issue is how to address this complexity across the system rather than only a part of the system of one nation state.

Steve Denning

Hi Deb,

I understand the scale of the challenge, but I don't share your pessimism. The pain level is already high and the evidence is more than plain.

The idea to change management of the Fortune 500 may seem absurd, but as Einstein once said, "unless an idea is at first absurd, there is no hope for it."

I can understand why politicians lack the courage to address real issues. And I can see why grotesquely over-paid executives might be disinclined to examine whether their boat is sinking.

So the situation does place a particular onus on journalists like Tom Friedman to address the real issues, not the fake ones.


Barbara R.

I don't entirely subscribe to the "neural pathways" theories. They are too limiting. I don't know how to "rewire my neurophysiology" but I do know something about how hard it is to revise my habitual thinking. Or any kind of habit, for that matter.
I suggest any theory that starts from a reductionist worldview will result in limited usefulness in life, where the variables are legion and messy things like emotions occur. We need more Quantum-style "compost the box" thinking, not different neural pathways.
In my experience, I have found that small shifts in management's perception and understanding will have big impacts on an organization's ability to adapt and excel. Could these manager's new neural pathways be mapped? I guess so, but why? Learning is synergistic, which would make it difficult to map except, again, in a limited fashion.

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