What HR can learn from neuroscience

Neuroscience is opening up a world of opportunities in L&D – not least in leadership development

What HR can learn from neuroscience

Neuroscience is opening up a world of opportunities in L&D – not least in leadership development. Iain Hopkins chats to one innovator who is boosting the ‘Adaptive Expertise’ and ‘Fluid Intelligence’ of executive teams globally

HR professionals are well aware of the rapid – some might say frantic – pace of business today. Innovation and agility are more than buzzwords; they are vital to surviving disruption. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed it’s not surprising. What is surprising is the possible reason why: it comes back to how we learn and adapt, and the fundamental differences between ‘Crystallized Intelligence’ and ‘Fluid Intelligence’.

Phillip Campbell, CEO of enigmaFIT, outlines the two terms thus: “When we lived in a steady-state business world, subject matter expertise, or what we call Crystallized Intelligence, was fi ne. At a basic level, this is defined as everything we’ve ever learnt. Most traditional leadership development is focused on Crystallized Intelligence.

However, in a rapidly changing business world, you need to complement Crystallized Intelligence with Fluid Intelligence, which is defined as the ability to adapt and solve new and novel problems in uncharted territory. Fluid intelligence underpins what’s called Adaptive Expertise.”

Crystallized Intelligence is primarily a left-brain activity and is underpinned by language. In most educational forums, from kindergarten all the way to university and on to business training courses, the learner is told information, or they read information. Crystallized Intelligence is then tested by asking questions such as ‘Tell me what you know about X, Y, Z’, and the learner either verbalises it or writes it down.

“It’s like you’re only exercising your left leg until it gets really strong, and doing no exercise on your right leg, and unfortunately when you try to walk you go round and round in circles. With today’s world we need to start exercising the right leg so you are balanced in your approach,” says Campbell.

So how do we exercise that ‘right leg’? Significant advances in neuroscience and understanding of right/left-brain plasticity have helped in our understanding of why a combination of both Crystallized and Fluid Intelligence is so important.

Campbell provides an example that all HR professionals can relate to, which highlights why brain function is critically important to L&D outcomes. In this example, a dozen people are sent off to an offsite training program for two days. They’re all of similar expertise and experience. It’s the same facilitator, and the same course content and materials are used for everyone. Two of the participants come back and say the course was fabulous; two of them come back and say it was a waste of time; the others say it was just OK. Why the divergent opinions?

“The only thing that’s different is what’s happening inside people’s brains,” Campbell says. “Many of those people will come back to the office and feel good about it, but there will be no behavioural change. It’s the individual’s Fluid Intelligence that drives their ability to change and adapt. That’s why unless we’re upping their Fluid Intelligence we’re not giving them the chance to apply the learning and develop their new behaviours. All we’ve done is increase their comprehension [Crystallized Intelligence].”

Most of HRD’s readers would know that VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. What you might not know is that it’s actually a military term that describes being in a battle in conditions you’ve never fought in before. “What they’re saying is you can’t rely on past experience, and that’s exactly what Fluid Intelligence is all about,” says Phillip Campbell. “Fluid Intelligence is how you handle new or novel problems, or, as we say, how you handle uncharted waters. By definition you can’t do what you’ve always done under business-as-usual conditions. To stay ahead of the pack, many of the executives we work with want to accelerate their ability to handle VUCA conditions.”

The rise and rise of cognitive science Campbell, who holds a master’s in cognitive science and has over 25 years’ experience in the field, says cognitive science is fundamentally about how the human brain processes information, and the way we learn and develop. He likens the subconscious brain to a computer’s operating system. We don’t really see what goes on in the operating system – we use a tool like Excel or Word, punch in the numbers or words and expect an output. The first we often know of something being wrong with the operating system is when the computer slows down or it hangs. “That’s what happens with the brain too,” says Campbell. “It’s not able to process the information quickly enough, and the problem is we’re getting more and more information dumped on us and we have to turn things around quicker and quicker, so we’re getting less time to analyse it. We’re being attacked from both sides.”

As the speed of change quickens, our ‘half-life’ of knowledge is decreasing. This means that even if we believe our ‘Crystallized’ knowledge is an asset, it’s rapidly depreciating because a lot of what we learn is becoming redundant in a short space of time. Hence, learning adaptability and learning agility are rapidly becoming critically important.

Campbell says that in the past an executive with lower Adaptive Expertise could still get by. Now and in the future they won’t be able to survive without improved Fluid Intelligence, which underpins their Adaptive Expertise.

Utilising Campbell’s knowledge about the brain’s natural brain plasticity and ability to change, enigmaFIT addresses the root causes of human behavioural change.

“Most programs address the symptoms, but it’s very difficult to get major change in a short period of time if all you’re doing is addressing the symptoms and not the underlying cause,” he says.

Just like changing habits, it takes time to create new subconscious brain patterns, which is what enigmaFIT does.

“Because it’s subconscious you can’t just talk about it, you have to actually use the brain, and use it in different ways,” Campbell says. “The program takes two to three months because that’s the time it takes to build and strengthen the neural pathways so that it becomes a subconscious habit even during times of stress.”

When Phillip Campbell is asked by clients to define Adaptive Expertise, he uses something everyone can relate to. “If I say, ‘Houston, we have a problem’, everyone thinks of Apollo 13, the real-life event and the film. This is the ideal way to outline what Adaptive Expertise is about. No one had been in that situation before and anyone who’s watched that film will see Fluid Intelligence in action – they were literally rapidly coming up with innovative solutions on the go where they couldn’t rely on historical precedents. The leader had to continually lead while utilising the expertise within his team. That’s what we’re doing – we’re developing the brain’s capability to deal with issues that leaders haven’t come across before.” Or as child development pioneer Jean Piaget so elegantly put it, “It’s what you use when you don’t know what to do”.

The enigmaFIT approach
The goal of enigmaFIT’s program is to improve adaptability and agility, both vital traits in today’s VUCA world. “We don’t do any subject matter coaching or training because that is, by definition, left-brain, language-based Crystallized Intelligence,” Campbell says. “That’s still important and still needs to be done, but it’s not what we do. We uniquely focus on the Adaptive Expertise and Fluid Intelligence. We aim to improve learning agility, strategic agility, mental agility, delegation agility and communication agility. We also improve social leadership skills – that’s a big payoff as well,” says Campbell.

Participants in the programs – who range from high potentials to senior executives and CEOs – first undertake a 40-minute test of where they currently sit in relation to those previously mentioned traits. The test utilises pictures, diagrams and brain puzzles. Participants are then given a report and a score, the real purpose of which is to tailor the subsequent development program to them.

For C-suite and senior executives, it’s commonplace to do one-on-one sessions, while high-potential executives might do the program as a group.  Regardless, the commitment level is the same: typically eight 1.5 hour sessions, once a week. Participants then do three to four 30-minute Fluid Intelligence practice sessions in between, such as brain puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, etc, but they need to be done in a very specific way. Campbell likens this approach to using a personal gym instructor once a week, but if you don’t go to the gym in between the sessions, the impact will be minimal. “People have to commit to doing that or there’s no point,” he says.

The enigmaFIT approach aims to address what Campbell views as a flaw in many leadership development programs. “Think of it as looking to add a second storey on your leadership house,” he says. “Firstly, we’re testing the foundations of your house. Then we want to strengthen those foundations. Only then do we add the second level. Too often companies will build the second storey without first firming up the foundations. Basically, the first two thirds of the program is spent addressing those foundational areas. The last third is spent applying it to the job of each participant.”

At the end of the program, participants are retested. “We do the retest because we’ve found that people in finance, accounting, engineering and sales roles really want to see quantitative evidence of change. The retest also identifies any fine-tuning that needs to occur, but you’re only doing that in the areas where it’s needed,” Campbell says.

Time for a change?
Astute HR directors are already on board with this innovative approach to developing existing and future leaders. enigmaFIT’s impressive client list includes Scentre Group(owner and operator of Westfield in Australia and New Zealand) and Boston Consulting Group in New York (see case studies). “Every HR department we’re talking to is saying, ‘We need to make our leaders more adaptable, agile and flexible’, but they don’t know how to do it. That’s what we do uniquely. Others can’t do that, because they’re trying to do it with Crystallized Intelligence, which makes people more aware but doesn’t get an outcome. It’s time for a different approach.”


HRD chats with Vickie Zalkin, Consulting, Staffing and People Team Director at Boston Consulting Group’s New York office, about how enigmaFIT’s approach to leadership development is helping BCG’s high potentials adapt to the strategic demands of future leadership roles

HRD: What sparked your initial interest in how enigmaFIT develops leaders?
Vickie Zalkin:
We attended a breakfast a little over a year ago, where we first heard about the program and the concept of Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence, and Adaptive Leadership. We thought this could be an interesting program for our high-potential Principals. Within BCG we have a Senior Partner level and then a Pre-Partner level – our Principals – and we were keen to offer something new to both these cohorts in addition to our existing development programs. We thought this would be a good opportunity to pilot something different that we hadn’t really encountered before and position it almost like a reward for our high potentials in particular.

Ross Love, our Managing Partner, also commented: “Designing our new office at 10 Hudson Yards required innovative, strategic and edgy thinking as we wanted a degree of unpredictability. We didn’t want our people to just slip into a regular pattern of thinking at the new office. So we also engaged enigmaFIT to develop our people’s Fluid Intelligence and Adaptive Thinking so they could think differently about projects and develop answers that delivered a differentiated and advantaged outcome for our clients.”

HRD: Had you tried traditional coaching sessions before?
We’d used traditional executive coaches before and they are great – they are helpful in getting people to work through performance issues or developing specific skills, such as presentation skills. However, what appealed to me was the fact that this is rooted in neuroscience. This was very different both in terms of how the enigmaFIT profile assesses where you are to start with, and then how it explores the various dimensions that are helpful for executive performance. Then the approach the program takes is fresh and different – from the brain practice exercises in between sessions and the different types of exercises, to the coaching itself.

HRD: What were you hoping to achieve by putting these high potentials through the Group Adaptive Expertise Program?
These participants are at Pre-Partner level so they are yet to have much experience and exposure to the executive level. We were looking to help them pull back and see the bigger picture, including how they could delegate more effectively to their teams. Many of them were really close to the Project Manager phase of work at BCG, so they were still tactical and focused on the day-today activities of project management and execution. We wanted them to get a sense of how they might handle some of the strategic challenges inherent in these roles.

HRD: You participated in this course yourself. Walk us through how the program was implemented at BCG.
Our high-potential Principals had their profiles done, then we undertook group sessions, and then we practised the brain exercises between each session. We undertook the coaching sessions together in an interactive group format, with additional one-on-ones with each person over the course of the two-and-a-half-month program. As each participant completed the course they undertook a post-program test to see how and where they’d developed.

HRD: What results have you seen so far?
One of my roles has been overseeing the career development for this cohort of staff, and six months since they completed this program I can see where those who made the biggest gains in the program, from pre-program to post-program, have actually also made the biggest gains in their overall performance. They have been able to stand back, look at the bigger picture, and see how they can adapt or flex to the different challenges coming their way.

I think they’re continuing to see benefits and are really accelerating into their roles. Those who didn’t do all the exercises in between the coaching sessions didn’t see as much of an impact from their pre-program profile to their post-program profile evaluation, and haven’t had the same level of acceleration. From my own perspective, I have become much more strategic, more proactive, gained considerably more leverage, and more effective use of my time. In fact, as a result of undertaking the program, I actually made the decision to hire two more direct reports, which has enhanced my effectiveness and leverage even more.

HRD: Can you provide an example of the brain exercises?
An example would be the series of mazes, which became increasingly difficult; however, there was also a specific way to complete each maze. It wasn’t just starting at the beginning and working your way through. Initially it seems quite basic, but as the mazes become more complex you can see how this approach makes a big difference. It’s actually a very visual representation of something that you’re doing all the time in management roles. It’s the same way that a large, complicated project might initially look insurmountable. However, in much the same way that you can train your brain to navigate a maze in a different way, you can also ensure your brain is wired and equipped to deal with a larger or more strategic problem in a more effective way.

HRD: Did the course challenge any preconceived notions of your own abilities?
You do get a sense of which exercises are addressing which dimensions of Adaptive Expertise and Fluid Intelligence. What surprised me was the experience of doing the profile test and having the profile results fed back to me, outlining what my profile results on each segment of the assessment indicated. I kept saying: “That’s exactly how I think about things”. I was surprised at how accurate it was, but I was told this reaction was normal. It was the fact that these results reinforced what I naturally gravitate towards and what I feel most comfortable doing, and also where I feel most uncomfortable and need to stretch myself. Working through that was probably the most arresting piece – getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and knowing that was when I was making the most progress.

HRD: You’ve since rolled out the 1:1 Adaptive Expertise Program with Senior Partners. How has that experience been?
We’re still only partway through. It’s eight sessions theoretically done once a week, but with some scheduling issues it will take a little longer for the Partners to complete. Using the 1:1 sessions is more impactful as each person is working in a different industry or practice area, and they each have different ways of working with clients. The 1:1 sessions make more sense as they can dig into live situations and determine how to apply some of the techniques and approaches to the challenges they are facing. Ethan Dabbs, who is a Partner and Managing Director and recently started the 1:1 version of the program, commented at a breakfast event: “It’s early days yet, but I have already substantially improved my own and my team’s productivity. I have also got an additional hour back in my day.”

HRD: Any advice for other leaders considering such a course?
It is unlike most programs where you can take a more reactive approach of just attending and focusing on understanding the content. With the Adaptive Expertise Program you need to appreciate the science underpinning it which requires you to be proactively engaged and undertake the brain practice exercises on a regular basis in order to become more strategic, flexible, agile, leveraged, etc. Put simply, if you do the brain practice exercises then you get the payoff, but if don’t then you won’t get the payoff. This is critical to making it work, so it is important to select motivated and engaged executives to undertake the program.


HRD sat down with Scentre Group’s Director of Human Resources, Janine Frew, and Organisation Capability Manager, Carolyn Agar, to discuss how enigmaFIT’s program has helped transform the company’s leadership team

HRD: Can you provide some context around why you revised your leadership development programs?
Janine Frew:
With the establishment of Scentre Group (owner and operator of Westfield in Australia and New Zealand) several years ago, we had a new corporate entity, a new board and a new CEO, but effectively the same leadership team that we had when we were known as Westfi eld. Our aim was to establish Scentre Group as a new identity.

The executive team started by creating a new purpose and also the DNA or cultural values of the organisation. That process revealed there was a significant culture shift needed from where we were to where we needed to be. We also knew that from a capability perspective we also had to make a shift from being a very technically competent, operationally efficient organisation to one that was more focused on strategic thinking, innovation and being able to adapt to the changing needs of our retailers and shoppers.

We knew we needed to have the right leaders in place in order to make that transformation. We’ve explored a whole range of approaches to how we could go about doing that, and what struck us about enigmaFIT was that it was quite different and unique in that there was a very strong emphasis on building that strategic agility and innovation and actually working with your existing leaders. The question was: could these leaders become more agile, more strategic? That’s where enigmaFIT came in.

Carolyn Agar: We also wanted to focus on the next layer down from those 20 or so senior executives. We needed to be grooming that pool of 24 high-potential executives so we could eventually elevate them to more senior executive roles. They were seasoned senior managers and we wanted to understand what they had in their tank if they had to step up. So it was a key part of succession planning and building bench strength.

HRD: What attracted you to the enigmaFIT program?
The enigmaFIT program gave us the ability to understand where people were at, but just as important, it gave us an understanding of how much each individual could shift. We wanted participants to increase their adaptability and agility so they could deliver results, but do that in a really effective and efficient way. That was quite unique. It also allowed us to use our own language in how we applied the tool and the process. It couldn’t be just another leadership program; we didn’t want the jargon. It had to be meaningful and relevant to our business strategy and where we were taking the organisation.

HRD: How do you assess a program like this?
We always start with the anecdotal piece, which occurs when you talk to the individuals who went through the program. We did this with the executives and every person who went through the complete program, of which enigmaFIT was one part. enigmaFIT was reported in some cases as being the most life-changing, most impactful element, so that anecdotal feedback was incredibly powerful. Then obviously we looked at the results pre and post the program in terms of any change. One of the reasons was to support the pipeline of talent through the business.

When we look at those high potentials, 20 of the 24 have been promoted or had significant role-stretch in the organisation. For those in the GM ranks, we’ve had a significant amount of movement there too – moving into roles of greater significance. So you could definitely say it’s done the job we needed it to do.

HRD: How about the more subtle elements – the culture change, the desire to create a new entity?
In an employee survey we ran last year, our engagement score was at 85%, which would indicate people have a huge amount of goodwill towards the organisation, and that is primarily achieved through their relationship with their leaders. When you look at things like whether people are clear on what they’re here to deliver on and do they understand the strategy of the business, those scores are in the 90s. So it has defi nitely helped to translate strategy into clear goals for people.

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