Stimulating The “Lizard Brain” : A Neuroscience based Change Management strategy for Supply Chain Professionals

The Status Quo problem

We are all very much aware of the fact that breaking the status quo of a legacy process in any organization is like breaking a habit formed over many years.

When we form a habit, it essentially means that our brain goes on autopilot. And once this “autopilot” habit is formed, it becomes really difficult to get it off that mode. To disrupt that habit, you need to appeal to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made. In this post, I will discuss the Neuroscience of change management, inspired from a July 2012 HBR article on Neuroscience of selling by Tim Riesterer.

The Lizard Brain

Let us first try to understand, at a high level, what the term Lizard brain means and then we will jump into the details.

Our brain is divided into three parts:

  • Neocortex: Brain’s analytical computer which processes data.
  • Limbic system: This is where all emotions reside
  • Brain stem and other brain structures: These parts are responsible for survival and have been described by American Psychologist Robert Ornstein as “the lizard brain”.

The Lizard Brain quickly assesses situations to determine if we are at risk or in danger. If it senses your well being is in jeopardy, it forces you to react and move away from the potential threat.

To break this status quo, you have to “wake” this part of the Lizard brain by showing it how the current status quo is untenable, and even unsafe.

Legacy Supply Chain ecosystems create Lizard brains

I keep on repeating the same example in many of my posts – Most large organizations keep on working on the same type of Supply Chain “transformation” projects every few years. You can look into your organization and will find history of projects that validates this. Examples are:

  • Cost reduction projects, using the exact same levers, every few years
  • Forecasting accuracy initiatives, every few years
  • Inventory reduction/optimization initiatives every few years

The reason we keep on getting back to status quo is because we forget that:

The way Supply Chains behave are results of behaviors of individuals who operate within the Supply Chain.

Supply chain efficiencies are gained through changing processes, and then locking those changes through technology. But if  that “locking” does not happen, the status quo behavior takes the processes back to what it was- and the project begins again.

While leveraging technology and analytics to erase constraints of the processes is a must, organizational process and culture changes are one of the key initial steps. And the most important of them all is changing the status quo mindset – targeting the Lizard Brain.

Two pronged Strategy -Context and Contrast

As mentioned above, to break this status quo of the Lizard brain, you have to “wake” this part of the Lizard brain by showing it how the current status quo is untenable, and even unsafe. At a high level, there are two approaches that you need to take:

  • Context – to create urgency
  • Contrast – to showcase value

We will now get into the details of each of these two approaches.

Creating sense of Urgency- Context

Creating sense of urgency is associated with two set of questions:

  1. Why change?
  2. Why now?

if you are able to create a clear, compelling sense that the targeted Supply Chain professionals won’t be able to hit their objective by staying where they are, it will prick the lizard brain’s survival instinct and cause it to start looking for an alternative to the staus quo. Essentially, by activating their Lizard brain, you make them involved in your objectives since they start seeing a common goal.

While at the leadership level, this urgency is created by highlighting the fact that the company may lag against competition or profitability taking a hit, these issues may not always stimulate the Lizard brain of those who work “in the process”. You have to use a different contrast strategy here. An example is below:

Every person who works “in the chain” is chasing a metric (unfortunately, in my opinion. I believe many currently existing metrics end up creating silos). That metric defines their success, competency, their future in the organization. Create the contrast by defining how those numbers will “fail” them against benchmark numbers, if the change is not initiated.

Creating contrast to create value

Once you have created context, you then need to convince the target employees that they can’t get what they need from where their status quo currently places them. That status quo is a formidable foe.

In this prong, you need to feed the Lizard brain the thing it craves most to make a decision – contrast. The lizard brain relies exclusively on visual and emotional contrast to decide between what is safe and what is unsafe. The best way to create contrast is in the following two ways:

  1. Before and after comparison
  2. Visual tools

Before and after

“Pilots” are the best way to demonstrate the before and after. But here is the challenge:

Pilots results focus too much on quantifying the $ benefits. While that is obviously an area of interest for the top management, the people driving the Supply Chain behavior don’t give a sh** that some one at the top will make a million bucks more due to operations efficiencies.

With the $ savings focus- there is nothing in it for them. So the pilots need to be focused on themes like moving from complexity to simplicity (one example). Note that you will have to showcase the pilot results efficiently as well, to make sure that you highlight the aspects that presents the contrast in a way that makes the Lizard brain think about moving away from the status quo.

Visual tools

Contrast is best depicted in pictures- not big photos, charts, graphs or metaphorical imagery, but images that make complex and abstract ideas simpler and more concrete. It is best to literally illustrate the current status quo as a messy situation fraught with peril side by side with an alternative approach that addresses all the issues and cleans up the mess.

Hence, visual story telling that shows clear contrast is an essential messaging tool for waking the Lizard brain and breaking the status quo.


Views my Own.


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