Neuronal Darwinism or Why Change Processes Actually Fail


“Leading Change–Why Transformation Efforts Fail” by John Peter Kotter is one of the 50 most-read articles in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). At the beginning of the article, it is pointed out to the reader that “a few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale.” In many other brochures, we then read similar accounts or even worse accounts–sometimes, horror figures of up to 70% of the change management projects are mentioned which are obvious failures. I have indeed not yet seen a research study which would confirm these figures, but they are always impressive for marketing purposes. I have always asked myself the following question: If all this were true, why will then so many change projects be initiated if the change for success is so small? Does this not indeed conflict with any type of business logic to start a project with so little chances for success?


Thank goodness, I have been managing enough transformation processes through the years and, more importantly, many of them were very successfully implemented in order to believe these stories in an unreflected manner. However, it would be a lie if we would assert that it is easy to successfully manage change processes towards their goal. However, the reason lies with us ourselves: People and organisations have an extremely strong desire for inertia and for retaining customary habits. It would be too superficial if we opine that people are just intractable and enjoy blocking the ideas and projects of other persons. Rather, it is our emotional power in our brain which blocks us: The balance power!


Our brain is so interested in balance that new ideas are always reconciled with old models. If these new ideas deviate too much, they are rejected. The American cell biologist and Noble Prize winner Gerald Edelmann has referred to this as Neuronal Darwinism. The more often we hear the same opinion, the stronger the neuronal interconnection is in the brain areas in which this opinion is stored. Conversely, competing nerve networks perish. Thus, it is also the case with older colleagues at the company that they are not so open to new ideas and we encounter their resistance. However, this is a subconscious neuronal process and not a rational blockade.


Unfortunately, change processes all too often entail enormous sums for IT investments and, in this regard, we all too often also forget that this essentially involves the human factor. The subconscious inertia-based mechanisms are always underestimated by top management and, as before, there is the all too widely-held belief that change can be managed. John P. Kotter also probably knows this, but, in my opinion, is misguided with his 8 steps for change because he regards transformations as being easy. The design of transformation processes is, on the one hand, highly-complex, but, on the other hand, also not impossible.


Hans- Georg Häusel states in his book “Think Limbic!” that the resistance from the limbic system can be elegantly eliminated. This method was introduced by the Chinese as “brain-washing” during the Korean War. Many weeks, officers were strictly shielded from each other which produced boredom. Thus, the discussion roundtables then offered were gladly accepted–even more so because they were voluntary and did not convey the impression of being compulsory. During these discussions, the officers were allowed to rave about their United States and only then slowly were political elements introduced. At the end of the process, all became proud American officers and fanatical Communists.


Now, it is far from me to lead a change process while employing brain-washing methods. In the aforementioned case, the goal was clearly an underhanded ideological manipulation in which the players did not know that they were being misused–they didn’t know the target goal. During our transformation processes, we communicate the target goal clearly and transparently, but it does not suffice to communicate this only in a large event and/or in high-gloss brochures. We need many small steps of change which must be voluntarily experienced by the players. Deviating incentives and information must thus be avoided. This all requires time and resources and thus Häusel recommends planning at least 60% for measures for changing mentalities–a recommendation which I can only wholeheartedly second!


Striving for balance is a basic neurobiological characteristic. Systems do not behave differently in this context–and thus I also dedicated my dissertation to this theme in which I studied the balance of hierarchies and networks. But we can change ourselves and also our systems by making ourselves more conscious of the subconscious. We don’t realise to what a great extent we become inflexible upon a daily basis owing to our internal balance power. Thus, just like we play sport daily in order to remain fit, we must also condition our mental abilities. Thus, companies and their employees are well-advised to constantly address new themes and always to change small habits. Thus, change succeeds in every system, it also only needs time because change never occurs from one day to the next.

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