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BLOG: Overcoming resistance to innovation and change

Joanne Flinn | June 15, 2012
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

Joanne Flinn

I was hosted by Walter McFarland of Windmills Consulting during my recent visit to Washington D.C. Walt was formerly a senior partner at Booz Allen and Hamilton, and is the chairman-elect of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD). He is also on the board of the Cahn Fellows Program at Columbia University.  

Walt and I got to talking about the human side of strategy, capacity building and change. "Human behaviour in the workplace", he told me, "does not work as we thought. When you talk to David Rock and the Neuroleadership Institute, brain sciences clearly affect far more than we thought."

Walt's right. From my conversations over the years with David, as well as Mette Kristine Oustrup at Building Innovation Culture, it's clear that the mind and the brain are rarely considered when strategy, change, innovation or projects are initiated. This is a shame.

Science is now showing that the brain is a scanning device that detects variations or errors. In other words, the mind scans for changes. When the scanner detects an error, it seizes up with fear. Changes in social situations - including changes within organisations - are "errors" that trigger this fear response.

Walt explained: "The brain sees this as bad, and bad is five times as strong as good. It's about survival. When we want our organisations to do more than just get by, we as leaders need to actively work to weed out the patterns seen as dangerous and work to plant those that feed the good. Without this, innovations die and change fails."

Walt's key points on motivation:

-          Fear triggers profound emotional resistance and reduces performance.

-          Leaders can consciously focus on behaviour to reinforce "good over bad".

-          Brains hardwire patterns particularly those that are seen as dangerous. These can be deliberately re-wired.

When it comes to change and innovation, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. (With apologies to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.)

Based on Insights for Success 2012: Projects, Programs and Portfolios. Joanne Flinn is the author of "The Success Healthcheck for IT Projects" (Wiley 2010) and can be reached personally at


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