of Strategic Speed:
An Interview with
Dr. Srini Pillay
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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