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Be The Scientist of Your Experience: Building a Brain-Friendly Organisation

This week, Linda Ray, looks at how becoming the scientist of your own experience can simplify and enrich your organisational strategy, leading to an innovative and resilient brain-friendly organisation.

Building a brain-friendly organisation requires us to be the scientist of our own experience.

Is the increasing disconnect between what science is telling us and what business continues to do, requiring us to find new ways of working in our businesses? Building a brain-friendly organisation can provide a multitude of benefits to employees and an organisation’s bottom line when leaders are prepared to leverage the knowledge we are gaining about our neurobiology.

The emerging evidence from science is challenging not only how we lead organisations, but also how we motivate ourselves and others, how we approach change, how we manage attention, how we manage performance, how we engage people, how we do strategy, how we make decisions and problem solve, and how we set goals, and how we plan.

We know old command and control approaches don’t cut it in the world most businesses operate within. Yet many businesses still make decisions, communicate internally and externally, and employ and recruit from within these outdated structures. The challenge is, how do you break down a framework that has been in place for decades? What do we need to do differently? Armed with the knowledge we are gaining about our neurobiology, how do we build brain-friendly organisations and teams?

Perhaps, first of all, it’s worth exploring what we mean by the term ‘brain-friendly’? In her book The Brain-Friendly Workplace, Erika Garms defines it in this way:

Brain-friendly strategies are strategies that call upon us to use our brains in the ways they naturally function. Our brains have a myriad of processes and functions that occur in a certain way, in a particular sequence, and triggered by specific events. Because we know this, we can manipulate our working environment — to some degree — to be as conducive to brain function as possible. Often organisations and teams will take the path of least resistance, but this is not naturally brain-friendly. The reason this occurs is because this takes the least amount energy (2014, p5).

What Garms suggests is that even learning a handful of fundamental brain processes can assist in transforming a workplace culture. In our work at NeuroCapability, we have seen this first hand. We have also noticed a difference in organisations that consciously apply neuroscience to their organisational processes.

The application of neuroscience to build better organisations is still in its infancy. Organisational neuroscience (ON) is identified by Angela Passarelli (2015) as an emerging research domain within the field of management that integrates organisational behaviour with neuroscience. Given that the application of neuroscience is in early days, it is important that we experiment, test hypotheses, and learn from our mistakes. In other words, we need to be scientists of our own experience.

In his book The Game Changer, Jason Fox says that the only way to find out if something is working is to collect evidence by conducting experiments and play-testing new ideas. At NeuroCapability, this principle gives us permission as a business to experiment with ideas, some of which will work and some which will no doubt need tinkering or replacing. Currently, we are experimenting with building team culture, structure, and framework. As a team, we are committed to focusing our attention on what we believe best supports the building of a brain-friendly culture, which we believe will, in turn, become our operating principles.

1. We actively manage our attentional intelligence

We know attention is a valuable resource, and we also know that we often don’t manage it well. Many of our team conversations are about focus and attention. Noticing where our attention is at each moment is key in self-regulation and ensuring that we are productive. In actively managing our attentional intelligence, we monitor:

  • how we are feeling (meta sensing);
  • what is in our mental sketchpad — in other words, what we are thinking at the moment (meta cognition); and
  • where our focus is – evaluating if it is where we want it to be to support achieving our goals (meta focus).

As we become better at intentionally noticing what is in our attention, we can shift it in a deliberate and thoughtful way.

2. We are committed to being curious, courageous, and resilient

Curiosity is the companion of change, growth, and problem-solving. Adopting a position of curiosity to all things in our team also supports us to be in a reward state and to have insights. We need to be courageous to try new things, to create new ways of doing business, and to develop new ways of working with our clients. This takes effort. Because the brain is an energy-conserving organ, and new ways of doing things take a lot of energy, the brain will try to seduce us into doing what we have always done. We also need to be resilient, and self-regulating is key to resilience. Our resilience is assisted by having regular brain breaks, taking a nap, or practising mindfulness.

3. We practice mindful growth

While all businesses are interested in growth, we want to practice mindful growth. Jason Fox offers a different approach to thinking about strategy, which resonates with our idea of mindful growth. He refers to the concept of ‘emergent strategy’, the core of which is one question: What is possible with the means we have at our disposal?

An additional principle is that any person in the business can challenge anyone on whether what we are doing is aligned with these intentions. Since adopting these in January, we are already seeing questions emerging in our conversations, such as: “

Since adopting these principles in January, we are already seeing questions emerging in our conversations, such as: “Are we being courageous? Is this consistent with being resilient?” We are also seeing people make reflections in the moment — for example, saying things like: “Not sure I’m managing my attentional intelligence well.” It turns out that these intentions are a bit like a navigational tool that supports each person in the business to reframe and refocus. Every staff member is primed to keep attention focused on these intentions. They are printed out and visible to all, which serves as a cue for attention.

Many organisations develop a mission statement and a long list of values that people struggle to connect to and enact, not to mention remember. In doing things differently, we have chosen this more fluid approach. The idea of having three key statements works with how the brain operates.

Our other key in developing these intentions is that they were done collectively and not in one session. We worked on them on Day 1, knowing we would not get them right in one session, as the brain needs time to gestate and connect up new maps in the brain. We allowed the ideas to ‘bake’ overnight and came together again with new insights that led to the development of shared intentions.

In future articles, we will share other examples of our experimentation process and look at how it’s helped us become more brain-friendly — both in our own business and in how we support our clients to apply principles of organisational neuroscience to their teams and organisations.

Anyone can build a brain-friendly organisation simply by becoming the scientist of your own experience. If you have been implementing brain-friendly strategies in your workplace, we’d love to hear your experiences.

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