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Backed By Science: How "Thinking Slow" Speeds Positive Change


Change is hard, but knowing how the mind works can make it easier.

Here's something you already know: organizations face a litany of challenges today. Attracting and retaining good talent, inspiring said talent, cultivating a cohesive culture, grasping globalization, keeping technology current and harvesting big data, not to mention mitigating uncertainty and other industry‑specific threats.

How, then, does one decide upon and manage change specific to their objective? Tina Juillerat, associate director of change management at Cognizant, has spent a career answering that question. While there's no “one size fits all” solution for overcoming change, she says there's a lot of useful science to help us improve our odds.

Much of that science is contained in the works of best‑selling authors Daniel Kahneman and brothers Chip and Dan Heath. In their seminal Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, the latter argue we can overcome habitual thinking by engaging both the rational and emotional mind before making a decision.

For instance, we must objectively seek out wide‑ranging examples and data of where a desired outcome is working and clearly articulate it in an applicable and understandable plan, what the Heaths call “the rider.” Of equal importance, we must then use that plan to engage our emotions (aka “the elephant”) with hope, optimism and a personal understanding that we are capable of change. Hence, to improve our decision‑making, we must speak to both our rational and feeling minds; the “rider” and “elephant” must move in harmony, the Heaths argue.

Decades of research by Nobel Prize‑winning author Daniel Kahneman corroborates those findings. In his acclaimed Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes a two‑mode approach to decision‑making. “System 1” represents involuntary, emotional and instinctive thoughts that allow us to make “fast” decisions with little mental energy. We couldn't survive without “System 1” thoughts and yet they often cause us to make short‑sighted decisions.

“System 2”, on the other hand, represents objective, critical, skeptical or analytical thoughts that “slowly” allow us to make calculated decisions. But since system 2 demands significantly more mental energy, the mind is reluctant to activate it out of self‑serving survival concerns. If we want positive change, we must appreciate both modes of thinking, understand their biases and learn to engage system 2 more often, Kahneman explains.

Figure 1

But realizing how the brain works will only get you two-thirds the way, say the Heaths. Change often fails because the “rider” (slow, calculated thinking) can't keep the “elephant” (fast, emotional thinking) on the road long enough to reach the destination. To make progress easier for both, we must reduce the confusion and miscommunication between the two with a clear, straight and emotionally‑charged campaign or “path” to change.

Mental prejudices need consideration, too, the research shows. For example, narrow‑framing (which artificially limits choice), irrelevant or self‑serving numbers, loss aversion, group think, overconfidence, sunk‑cost fallacy, positive correlation and our unwillingness to admit to mistakes (among others) all cause us to make poor decisions. The more aware we become of these tendencies, the better off we'll be.

Since the science is so new, however, the change management industry hasn't yet linked the dual‑thinking approach to their curriculum, Juillerat says. Although she views system 2 or “slow” thinking as a net gain for anyone interested in improving performance, she also cautions the temptation of over‑thinking or overcomplicating a decision that is counter to the desired outcome.

As for other techniques and mechanisms to encourage positive change and avoid auto‑pilot thinking, Juillerat recommends:

  • Getting people out of their normal environment.

  • Identifying objectives that cannot be achieved through habitual thinking.

  • And, exhorting decision‑makers to consider ideas that improve outcomes by a factor of 10 as opposed to single digit or percentile improvements.

Along with the new science on thinking, those are the kinds of behaviors that allow us to “keep challenging” our worldview, old ideas, new concepts and just about any decision we're asked to make, she says.

For more information, please visit our Change Management practice.

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