The Neuroscience
of Strategic Speed:
An Interview with
Dr. Srini Pillay
2 3
Harvard Business Press recently published Forum’s book Strategic Speed: Mobilize
People, Accelerate Execution, which i...
4
Pillay: Exactly. Take, for example, the notion of a mistake. If, in your mind, a mistake
is something that should make y...
© 2010 IIR Holdings, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Forum is a global professional services firm that mobilizes
people to embra...
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in …5
×

The neuroscience of strategic speed interview us

1,580 views
1,506 views

Published on

Dr. Srini Pillay, Harvard neuroscientist, provides tips to overcome the parts of our brains that can slow down strategy execution.

Published in: Health & Medicine, Technology
0 Comments
1 Like
Statistics
Notes
  • Be the first to comment

No Downloads
Views
Total views
1,580
On SlideShare
0
From Embeds
0
Number of Embeds
72
Actions
Shares
0
Downloads
43
Comments
0
Likes
1
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

The neuroscience of strategic speed interview us

  1. 1. The Neuroscience of Strategic Speed: An Interview with Dr. Srini Pillay
  2. 2. 2 3 Harvard Business Press recently published Forum’s book Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution, which is about the alignment and mobilization of people around a strategic initiative. To learn more about this topic, we interviewed Dr. Srini Pillay, a neuroscientist. He is the CEO of Neuro Business Group, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and the author of The Winning Executive’s Brain, due April 2011 from Wharton School Publishing. In this interview, Srini sheds light on three things. First, he defines the field of neuroscience. Second, he identifies the things that slow us down at work. And finally, he helps us understand the things that we can do once we understand how our brain works to overcome those things. Pillay: If we break this down to the fundamental processes, we’re talking about a leader being able to execute on a plan productively and clearly. Well, in the brain, we have the thinking brain and the emotional brain. The optimal situation is when the thinking brain and the emotional brain are working in concert. Emotions activate a part of the brain called the amygdala. If the amygdala is over activated by emotion, it decreases the clarity because it’s like having an earthquake in the brain. It starts interfering with what the thinking brain wants to do. As a result of that, it decreases the time to action, because then the thinking brain is basically saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t know how to put this together.” But if we decrease anxiety, the thinking can then work more effectively. Now, there are caveats to this. In general, chronic anxiety is really the problem. There are times when acute anxiety can actually help focus people more toward the problem. Because then the anxiety increases the firing in the thinking brain, and there’s a greater degree of focus. But this, like a lot of phenomena of the brain, is a U-shaped curve. At a particular point you lose the benefits of the anxiety, and chronic anxiety starts to interfere with the processing. So, if we can optimize the relationships between thinking and emotional circuits, we can increase clarity and therefore increase speed. Forum: Do you think people are largely in that state of chronic anxiety now, given the global economic crisis? And if so, what can we do to help people deal with that so that we can increase clarity on where we’re going in the future? Pillay: I recommend a brain-based strategy to try to increase clarity. A lot of people try to say to others, “Calm down, stop being so anxious.” But it’s very hard to intervene at that level, because you’re trying to have a direct effect on the unconscious brain, on the amygdala. It’s hard to access the anxiety center of the brain directly. The way the brain is wired is that when there’s anxiety over here, it will process that emotion over and above other emotions. This is presumably because of evolutionary significance in wanting to protect the organism. One of the approaches I use is to target the thinking parts that actually feed into that anxiety. The anterior cingulate cortex, or the prefrontal cortex, is that part of the brain that connects with the anxiety brain. And so what we want to do is do things that will improve the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and help diminish this anxiety. There are a number of different things we can do. I’ll mention some: reframing, refocusing, and re-engaging. When people are stuck or anxious, it’s because they have the same circuit going on in their brains, the same habit memory going on in their brains. If you have another frame, it provides a completely different experience of the situation and can significantly decrease anxiety. Forum: So, a frame might be a completely different way to look at something or interpret something? Forum: What is neuroscience, and how have you seen it help leaders? Pillay: Essentially, the concepts are pretty basic. In general, when you talk about leaders, you’re talking about people. In the past, using organizational psychology, we’ve been looking at the behaviors in isolation, trying to understand how then to help people improve their goals based on their behaviors. The reality is that within every leader is a brain. The brain provides another context that we can use to understand how the leader is behaving, why he or she is behaving in a particular way. Is there another kind of language that we can use to get through to the leader? And are there insights that brain science can add to help leaders make the changes that they want to make? Forum: Do you have an example specifically around speed of execution? Have you seen neuroscience help with that? Pillay: Very much so. The language of neuroscience is, in terms of speed, constructed around the broad concept of conscious and unconscious processing in the brain. When we make any decision, there are a lot of conscious processes going on. At the same time, the unconscious brain is also processing information. Information first reaches the unconscious brain. So the unconscious brain, in terms of speed, is faster to react. The trade-off is that the unconscious brain is more inaccurate compared to the conscious brain. So when we’re talking about speed and optimizing speed with leaders, what we’re talking about is increasing the speed of conscious processes and increasing the accuracy of unconscious processes. Forum: That is helpful background. How would you explain, from a neuro-scientific perspective, our finding that leaders who achieve strategic speed focus their efforts on three “people factors”: clarity, unity, and agility? The Neuroscience of Strategic Speed Dr. Srini Pillay “The reality is that within every leader is a brain. The brain provides another context that we can use to understand how the leader is behaving, why he or she is behaving in a particular way. Is there another kind of language that we can use to get through to the leader? And are there insights that brain science can add to help leaders make the changes that they want to make?” “When people are stuck or anxious, it’s because they have the same circuit going on in their brains, the same habit memory going on in their brains. If you have another frame, it provides a completely different experience of the situation and can significantly decrease anxiety.”
  3. 3. 4 Pillay: Exactly. Take, for example, the notion of a mistake. If, in your mind, a mistake is something that should make you always stop, then every time you make a mistake, you’re going to stop. But if, in your mind, a mistake is information about having to take a different path, then you can increase your awareness of that. And when you come across a mistake, rather than say automatically to yourself, “Okay, I’ve got to stop, let me just try to stop and go slower,” you can continue at a faster pace and just change the direction. Forum: That’s a nice segue into the agility aspect of speed. How else can we use brain science to be more agile in our execution of strategies? Pillay: One of the broad principles is that if you spend a lot of time in the practice phase, when you are then executing, you will then allow yourself to improvise. In order to be agile, you need to let go of the side rails. If you’re in an ice skating rink and you’re holding on to the rails, you’re not that agile in terms of what you’re doing. If you let go, you can give yourself greater agility. One way to let go of the side rails is to know that you have sufficient information. I’m stressing sufficient, and not all. When it comes to execution of strategy, people can become obsessional and feel like they need to have every single detail down before they can start to act. And the reality is that you don’t need every single detail. Sometimes you need to act in order to get better. Forum: That links to your work in helping leaders tap into their intuition. Pillay: Intuition is related to what I was saying about the unconscious process. Tapping into your intuition can be really helpful. One of the lines of thinking I find particularly compelling is the relationship between intention and action. A lot of times, what we do is imagine that first we have to intend, and then we act. But, studies are showing that sometimes people retrospectively make up the intention after they have already acted. The intention sometimes registers later than the actual action. It’s as though we make up the story afterwards. What that shows is that there are a lot of complex factors that go into creating an action; it’s beyond the one thing that you’re thinking of as your intention. So, that’s a rationale to help leaders let go of being obsessional about “why.” Why am I doing this? Why am I going through this? You can know that, and it’s important to know that up to a point. But after that it’s important to let it go, because your final action is probably only going to be partly related to your conscious intention. This leads us back to intuition, which is a huge challenge for a lot of leaders. Most leaders are pretty good at conscious execution of strategy where they meet the challenges. But what do they do when they’re in a place where they have amazing intuition but they don’t necessarily know how to act on it? One of the parts of the brain that conveys this kind intuitive information to the conscious brain is the insula. I have a strategy called insula mapping, which suggests that The Neuroscience of Strategic Speed whenever you have an intuition, don’t discard it; put it on the hypothesis table. Then, see what you need to do to test it in order to feel more secure about it. This is important because a lot of intuitions are actually really valuable insights that can speed up a process. Forum: Several leaders in our case studies intentionally started meetings earlier or spent significant portions of meetings just talking about what people were seeing. They did that so that 6 months later, when an ambiguous situation came up, they were able to tap into that in their collective intuition and solve the problem. Pillay: Yes. This is inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is reasoning that’s part of the creative process, and deductive reasoning is the distillation of an action plan from a set of variables. And a lot of times people move too quickly to deductive reasoning. As a result of that, they don’t build up enough of an infrastructure to be able to move fast. Because the idea of moving fast is that you need to have a really strong engine. And if you don’t have that strong engine, because you’ve built something too quickly, you’ll find out soon enough. Forum: The faster companies in our research actually spent a lot of time upfront building this “engine”—making personal connections, practicing, etc. Actually, that brings us to the last piece around unity. What would you say, in your experience, is important about building unity in speed? Pillay: Unity is a very important factor when it comes to building speed, in part due to the concept that I described earlier, which is the connection of the emotional and the thinking parts of the brain. When you have unity, it registers in the brain as social reward, which basically gives the action center of the brain the green light to go ahead. Also, unity creates trust. Trust decreases the mental activation, whereas anxiety increases it. When trust decreases the mental activation, it releases the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking brain, to do what it needs to do in order to act. So unity, through social reward and trust, is a really important factor. Also, if you look at the loneliness research, loneliness can actually significantly disrupt thinking processes and slow things down. Loneliness also decreases the registration of reward. So, unity is really important because it can significantly impact the productivity of a company. We used to think of these—clarity, unity, agility—as soft variables. Leaders would ignore them in favor of the hard-core variables. Of course, it’s still really important to attend to the hard variables, because you still do need to know what’s going on in the balance sheet. But in the same way that the thinking brain is connected to the emotional brain, we also need to know the soft variables. Because if we don’t know the soft variables, we’re not going to know some of the really important determinants of clarity, agility, and unity. “In order to be agile, you need to let go of the side rails ... One way to let go of the side rails is to know that you have sufficient information. I’m stressing sufficient, and not all.” “Whenever you have an intuition, don’t discard it; put it on the hypothesis table. Then, see what you need to do to test it in order to feel more secure about it. This is important because a lot of intuitions are actually really valuable insights that can speed up a process.” “When you have unity, it registers in the brain as social reward, which basically gives the action center of the brain the green light to go ahead.” 5
  4. 4. © 2010 IIR Holdings, Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Forum is a global professional services firm that mobilizes people to embrace the critical strategies of their organization and accelerate results. We help senior leaders with urgent strategic agendas equip their organizations to perform, change, and grow. Our expertise is built on decades of original research; our business insight keeps companies out ahead of their markets, competitors, and customers. Harvard Business Press published Forum’s latest book Strategic Speed in 2010. For more information, visit www.forum.com. 6

×