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strategy and business
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


“That’s the Way We (Used to) Do Things Around Here”

The refocusing step provides the most powerful change of the entire sequence: It has the greatest impact on the prefrontal cortex, where new behaviors must be processed and integrated into complex response patterns. When people focus repeatedly and bring this part of the brain into play, their new neuronal connections can become stabilized by attention density and the quantum Zeno effect; as a result, a more productive set of brain functions are put into play, and the potential for developing new action repertoires is established. This is often experienced as having one’s beliefs open up, and as becoming more capable and productive. When practiced regularly and consistently, the change rewires the basal ganglia and becomes a set of adaptive new habits. A prefrontal cognitive process has become internalized into deeper parts of the brain. People can now do the right thing without having to think consciously about it.

Step 5: Respond with Repetition

Hold yourself and others accountable for responding consistently with the needed new or improved behaviors. One example at Cargill is the use of metrics to set leadership priorities and track the day-to-day behaviors that managers are expected to demonstrate. As Cargill CEO Greg Page puts it, “As leaders at Cargill, we measure our collective efforts in terms of engaged employees, satisfied customers, enriched communities, and profitable growth. In this very deliberate way, we’re telling people we’re focusing not only on their sales and profits, but also on other key drivers of business performance.”

It takes discipline to develop new habits; they feel difficult at first. Once again, if you are a leader, your behavior makes all the difference. Other people closely watch what you say, what you do, and where you pay attention. Of course, leading requires a high level of self-awareness, which is one reason the recognition step (step 1) is so important.

Step 6: Revalue Your Choices in Real Time

The sixth step is the step of progressive mindfulness. Individuals gain the capacity to recognize their own thoughts in the moment, resist the amygdala hijack, and take crises in stride. In organizations, instead of automatically reverting to the idea that “that’s the way we do things around here,” people begin to think, “That’s how we used to do things around here. Now, we do things better.” When these automatic responses change in enough people, a new way of operating is instilled in the ethic of the company. More productive values become the basis of management decisions, especially at times of stress.

Over time, in the same way that individuals who change their health habits gradually come to crave healthier foods and exercise, people in an organization will come to choose and expect higher-performance forms of operation. Change then becomes truly generative: It is no longer something imposed on the brain or on people’s desire, but something chosen and instilled by the participants. They may have wanted to change before, but only now does the new way seem the natural way to operate.

The Way We Will

The initiatives at Cargill and Ameriprise have been in place since the late 2000s, and they are starting to show results. At Ameriprise, for example, 85 percent of the advisors who participated in the new program training report that they are becoming more effective at advising clients. Client acquisition, client retention of assets, financial planning fees, and referrals of new business from existing clients are rising, in ways that are linked to the new training.

Setting this type of cycle in motion is not easy in real life. The probability of falling back into old habits and old ways of doing things is very high. But for those who can follow the practice, the payoff is enormous.

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  1. Douglas Lennick, Financial Intelligence: How to Make Smart, Values-Based Decisions with Your Money and Your Life (FPA Press, 2010): Similar reframing principles applied to personal finance.
  2. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain:Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 2002): Explains how human thinking and behavior changes through processes like this one.
  3. Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: How to develop far more effective leadership practices by taking the nature of the human brain into account.
  4. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): Smith’s masterwork (as he considered it) explicates the development of morality through the “impartial spectator”; people building awareness of themselves in the context of a larger community.
  5. For more thought leadership on this subject, visit the s+b website at:
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