High-Impact Change Tactics

By Dave Roberts

Accelerate and sustain transformation.

Brimstone’s approach to helping leaders drive successful change stems from working for over 25 years with real people in real organizations, tackling real business issues.

We’ve tried many different tactics for driving lasting change, but our core processes and tools incorporate those that have time and again produced measurable improvements in business performance that is sustainable.

Research in neuroscience and neuroleadership explains why some of these time-tested change tactics are effective — and underscores where change leaders should focus their time and effort to have the biggest impact:

Get Honest

We begin our work by helping leadership teams develop honest and clear insights about the challenges facing their organizations and the new ways they need to respond to those challenges. We use these insights to create an impetus for change. Here’s one reason this works: New and challenging situations create a mild threat response in humans, increasing levels of adrenaline and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems (Rock, 2009). In other words, a certain level of discomfort leads to good ideas. We give people tools and processes to help them work through this discomfort to constructive action – tools and processes that will help them tackle the ongoing challenges that they will encounter as a leadership team.

The CEO of an environmental services organization recognized that its products and services were rapidly becoming commodities, and that price was becoming the sole differentiator in the industry. As part of our Senior Team Alignment Process, we worked with the CEO to help him powerfully articulate this threat to his leadership team. We then helped the team make an honest assessment of whether the organization was prepared to respond to this new reality. When they realized that it wasn’t, the team responded by successfully implementing an ambitious set of creative strategies that repositioned the organization in the market and sparked new channels of organic growth.

Get Talking

All our work incorporates extensive dialogue and transparency up, down, and across the organization. Driving dialogue through an organization helps address the human response that uncertainty registers (in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex) as an error, gap, or tension: something that must be corrected before one can feel comfortable again. That is why people crave certainty. Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This uncertainty diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present (Rock, 2009).

A client in the automotive industry was experiencing a major, very public disruption to their business. This situation was distracting employees from focusing on the day-to-day work of serving customers. As part of our Organizational Alignment process, we worked with the leaders to cascade a structured set of interactive communications throughout the organization. The goal was to increase dialogue and transparency about the market situation, the company’s key responses, and strategic initiatives focused on recovery and growth. The organization successfully weathered the disruption and returned to a focus on growth. Their success was due in large part to certainty about what actions the company was taking and the “we’re in this together” mindset driven by this process.

Get Aligned

Our work with leadership teams typically involves a process that creates alignment and shared accountability for the success of the entire enterprise. We use iterative dialogue to create alignment, which helps leadership teams eliminate the “threat responses” that naturally occur in a group of diverse individuals. These alignment processes work in large part because the characteristics that underly alignment — candor, trust, empathy, goodwill, and more — develop only when people’s brains start to recognize former strangers as friends. Once people make a stronger social connection, their brains begin to secrete a hormone called oxytocin in one another’s presence. This chemical, which has been linked with affection, maternal behavior, sexual arousal, and generosity, disarms the threat response and further activates the neural networks that permit us to perceive someone as “just like us” (Rock, 2009).

One of the most powerful tools we use in our alignment process is an exercise we call Leadership Journey Lines. Each team member creates a graphic rendition of the highs and lows of their career and life and then shares that story with the other team members. This is a powerful and insightful experience for a team — even after working together for some time. The personal stories are quite emotional, and usually quite surprising to their colleagues. Often, sharing these stories accelerates trust, empathy, and understanding — resulting in a breakthrough for the team on their journey to alignment.

Get Focused

We help organizations identify and tackle the critical few priorities that will have the most impact on moving the business forward — condensing volumes of “strategy” work into a succinct, digestible focus. We use what we call a Strategic Business Framework (SBF) to accomplish this. The SBF helps focus the organization by providing a concise summary of the stakeholders, key measures, strategic imperatives, and short-term actions. The power of this approach is based partly on understanding that when priorities are easy to recall and hold in mind, they prime people to do things differently.  The priorities “sink in,” and people can use them to self-calibrate consciously. They can check their plans against these priorities — plans for running a meeting, organizing a business unit, or launching a new product. And best of all, people talk about priorities all the time, helping to prime others. The ideas stay top of mind at the firm for a large number of people, helping each day to change thousands of both conscious and unconscious acts across the firm (Rock, 2019).

A client in the pharmaceutical industry needed to significantly shift their growth strategy and align their leadership practices and organizational culture with a new direction. We worked with leaders from a variety of functions and business units to develop focused strategies that would drive the shift in their organizations. We helped those leaders cascade their respective strategies throughout their organizations and helped individual team members link their day-to-day activities to the strategies. We also helped accelerate execution of specific strategic initiatives and development of new leadership practices required for success. This combination of our Senior Team Alignment, Organizational Alignment, Business Acceleration, and Leadership Acceleration processes helped the organization successfully make the required change in direction in much more quickly than they had expected.

Get Disciplined

Our approach with leaders and organizations needing to change involves establishing disciplined change processes, operating mechanisms that support the change, and organizational systems that drive desired behaviors throughout the organization. We’ve learned that a disciplined approach is necessary to maintain successful change that drives business results. We help leaders use a variety of methods and tools to instill this discipline: strategic frameworks, change initiative scorecards, business acceleration teams, stakeholder management tools, leadership development activities, and organizational alignment activities to name a few. These tools are designed to “automate” new behaviors in the organization. As people establish new behavioral goals and form new habits to achieve those goals, the brain works to migrate control of those habits from a goal-directed action system to a habit-based action system (Jankowski, Scheef, Huppe & Boeker, 2009; Tricomy, Balleine & O’Doherty, 2009). The habit-based action system is triggered less by rewards than by learned cues — by the disciplined processes, operating mechanisms, and organizational systems that support the new behavior.

We work with clients to help leaders learn new ways of behaving that better support and drive the organization’s business strategy. Rather than delivering a “one-time” training event, we help establish mechanisms and a system for ensuring that leaders maintain the desired new behaviors over the long term. We help these leaders convert new behaviors into new habits.

One of our clients used our Leadership Forum framework to establish development experiences for leaders at several levels in their organization. These experiences combined teaching, coaching, and action-learning delivered over time in modules designed to instill new leadership habits in participants. The new habits were reinforced even more because the large community of learners engaged in the effort held one another accountable to the new expectations about leader behavior. In addition to helping drive the desired culture change in the organization, these experiences improved employee engagement, internal mobility, and other people-related metrics.

Get Everyone (Who Wants to Be) Involved

One critical aspect of ensuring that organizational transformation “sticks” is creating energy and momentum for that change over the long term. We work to help leaders in our client organizations demonstrate in a very public way the new behaviors that will drive the desired business outcomes. We work with these leaders to ensure broad involvement in change efforts and wide publicity of “wins” in a way that propels the collective organization in a new direction. Research indicates that clarifying priorities and forming new behaviors in a social setting is a key driver of change. The research suggests that change is a social activity and that it is critical to involve everyone in the organization. The human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction: Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful. Loneliness is itself a threat response to a lack of social contact, activating the same neurochemicals that flood the system when one is subjected to physical pain (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008). Leaders who strive for inclusion and minimize situations in which people feel rejected create an environment that supports maximum performance (Rock, 2009).

One of our clients in the life sciences industry was focused on re-balancing their organization to accelerate growth of new, more technical, more profitable products. They had made some progress on this front, but the organization was still struggling in its efforts to redirect attention and resources from a legacy product set to a new product set. We helped senior leadership implement a new Business Acceleration process that involved a large cross-section of leaders in building a strategy to drive the organization’s pivot to the new product set. While initially optimistic about the process, senior leadership was surprised about the magnitude of buy-in, energy, and momentum this created in the organization. Participants in the process developed creative strategies for driving the necessary changes and took ownership of ensuring the success of those strategies. Their energy and commitment helped to energize the rest of the organization about the change.

Get Going

We are strong believers that humans can “act their way to new mindsets and behaviors” and this principle flows through all of the work we do with individual leaders, teams, and organizations. “Plan-Do-Debrief” is a cycle that we use in many types of change interventions, and our experience is that it is one of the most powerful methods for driving behavior change. Our action-based work with organizations leverages the neuroscience discovery that the human brain is highly plastic: Neural connections can be reformed, new behaviors can be learned, and even the most entrenched behaviors can be modified at any age. The real work of change involves creating new neural connections by acting in new ways and mindfully continuing to act in those new ways over time — thereby creating new habits (Rock, 2019).

The CEO of one of our client organizations asked us to help the information technology leadership team rebuild their credibility in the organization. Internal business leaders saw the technology team as transactional “order takers” who did not provide the level of value needed to help drive business results. We challenged the technology leadership team members to change their approach to meetings with business partners: Instead of simply reporting out on transactional work, they should first engage their respective business partners in a dialogue about business challenges and possible solutions. We worked with the technology leaders to “script” the new conversations, then established a cadence and process for regularly debriefing these conversations as a team. While this change seems simple, the team was surprised by how quickly the nature of their relationships with business partners changed and continued to improve. The technology leadership team came to be seen as more credible partners who were helping drive the business, not just the business’s technology.

At Brimstone, we see our experience and our understanding of the neuroscience of change as a powerful combination. More than ever, we can help busy change leaders focus their efforts on a few high-impact actions that both accelerate and sustain transformation.


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leadership changeDave Barash