I was running a peak performance workshop with some high performing sales engineers the other day and one of the attendees asked “how do you deal with rapid change?”. They were dealing with a high rate of change in their organization, their products, and their roles. I believe I answered generically, that change is constant and our brains are resistant to it, therefore, we must embrace it and actively work through it.
Not a great answer.
I realized that I hadn’t done much research or public writing on the neuroscience of change but that I do have a lot of practical experience with it. This post will cover my story of change and the neuroscience and psychology research related to change.
When I joined my last organization, I felt like I knew how to ship software. I had been shipping enterprise software for 10 years already and worked on five different products, the last one used by 92% of the Fortune 500 and 80% of the global 5000.
I was rigid in my approach and it wasn’t working in this new role.
I was wrong.
In the world of cybersecurity, things moved at a different pace than I was used to. Attacker behavior was changing quickly, vendors were releasing new vulnerabilities at a faster pace, and customers needed us to move faster. I was the Director of Engineering at the time and very quickly realized that I had to change or I would not be successful in the role.
We started by de-coupling our coverage stream from our product stream, so we could deliver coverage within hours of a new vulnerability being dropped, we moved to four major releases per year from one, increased our automated testing, and started developing a devops approach to shipping faster, when needed.
I needed to listen and learn from a whole different set of people and approaches to adapt to this new situation.
Eventually, it felt like I had deconstructed my mindset, process, and beliefs and reconstructed them in a new way that matched the external pressures.
I went from order->disorder->reorder.
I had to reorder myself in order to survive and it was incredibly uncomfortable.
It is like realizing what you have learned up to this point no longer applies and will no longer serve you.
Over the years, I got more comfortable with change. I had some great coaches that helped me find areas of rigidity, discomfort, and helped me adapt to new ways of being.
Speaking of “being” – changing your identity is the hardest thing to change. If you think changing process is hard (and it is), try changing identity. We often cling to our identity and place a lot of value on it.
Rich Roll had Brad Stulberg on his podcast recently and talked about how hard it can be for people to retire when they put a lot of emphasis on their occupation, title, or role. Brad talks about having multiple identities so that you don’t put all your eggs into one basket. For example, I have Dad worker, student, athlete, coach, partner, and entrepreneur identities that I can lean on.
Throughout my career, I have become much more adaptable through several career changes:
1. Computer consultant
2. Retail sales manager (shift from solo to team)
3. Software Developer (shift to Enterprise Software)
4. Software Development Manager (shift from doing to leading)
5. Director of Software Engineering (shift from leading to influencing)
6. Sr. Director of Products (shift from Engineering to Product Management)
7. VP of Products (shift from product to portfolio)
8. VP of Applied Engineering (shift from product to sales engineering and post-sales success)
9. CIO (shift from customer-facing to IT leadership)
10. Founder of Be Well Innovation (shift from enterprise tech to neuroscience)
The cool part of this meandering career path is that even when you go from two seemingly unreleated domains (cybersecurity to neuroscience), the skills you gained are transferable. For example, influence is influence and applies in any role. Analysis is analysis and applies to any role. Being a kind and empathetic team-mate transfers to any role.
With each new role, I felt imposter syndrome for at least six months and, sometimes, multiple years. This is a good thing for me as it kept me learning and pushing myself to do better.
Change eventually became a core part of my identity.
Instead of identifying as a CIO, I identified as someone who solves hard problems, adapts quickly, builds strong teams, and co-creates with others.
How does the brain adapt to change? Let’s dive in…
The first concept we should cover is neuroplasticity – the brains’ ability o change, adapt, and learn new process. When we learn, we have a new physical and chemical makeup that enables us to store, retrieve new information and skills. The neurons that fire together start to wire together and we now have a new habit, skill, or knowledge.
So, if our brains have the ability to change, why is change so hard? Well, change introduces uncertainty in our environment, which activates the brain’s threat response. Our brains have evolved to seek saftey and predictability and changes to this trigger the amygdala.
Brains are also resource-conservative and try to solve the problem with as few of resources as possible. Change requires a lot of cogntiive effort which creates friction as our brains want the path of least resistance.
Finally, change requires us to let go of the familiar, which creates a fear of loss, which can sometimes outweigh the benefit of the change. We have an aversion to the loss that we anticipate, even if that loss is somethign that no longer serves us in this changed world we now live in!
So, how should we think about change?