How cognitive sciences can help drive change, individually and collectively

Amandine de Gorguette d’Argoeuves works as a consultant with Humans Matter, a global cognitive design consulting company. She answers our questions on how we can leverage the Human Factor to develop our ability to change and drive shared value initiatives.

Amandine de Gorguette d'Argoeuves

We all know that change is imperative to slow down global warming, but so little has changed yet. Are we human beings able to change?

It’s interesting to reflect on how humans have changed over the ages: we, the human species, have changed continuously for as long as we exist. Our adaptation and innovation abilities have been extraordinary. We shouldn’t forget this: we have a very solid ability to change, adapt, innovate, and create new ways of living, interacting, and collaborating. The secret lies in our cognitive abilities and how they help us navigate our environment. They have been shaped through millions of years of evolution of both our human capabilities and the environment we live in.

We must understand that our current environment evolves at an unprecedented pace and has reached an unprecedented level of complexity of interactions and dependencies. The question about our difficulties to embrace change must be asked in this context. We need to explore what emotions, reactions, and ideas our cognitive abilities trigger when facing this volatile, uncertain, and complex environment. We need to reconnect with our cognitive mechanisms to understand how they can hinder our ability to change as much as they can support, and develop our ability to imagine or adopt new behaviours.

We shouldn’t forget this: we have a very solid ability to change, adapt, innovate, and create new ways of living, interacting, and collaborating.

What are the reasons why change is so difficult to embrace as an individual or organisation?

It is hard to change our behaviours and ways of working, even when we are convinced we should change, even if we know what we should do, and even when we dedicate resources to supporting this change. At Humans Matter we dive into this ability to change, trying to understand what triggers our adaptation, innovation, and progress. What makes the difference in our ability to embrace change is what we refer to as the Human Factor. Our cognitive abilities are mechanisms that link our perceptions and the reactions they trigger. That is what we need to explore when we try to understand how to develop our ability to change.

As an example, there are a number of cognitive biases, common to all humans, that plays part in our resistance to change. We can name a few here, like the sunk-cost bias, the status quo bias, or the conformity bias. The sunk cost bias describes how we follow through on an endeavour if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it. The status quo bias explains how anything new is perceived as creating more risks than benefits, hence overvaluing the status quo rather than change. The conformity bias explains how we tend to take cues for proper behaviour from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment.

Ostrich head in the hole

The Ostrich effect – ignoring or avoiding dangerous or negative information – is one of the numerous cognitive biases that hinder our ability to change. Photo Credit: Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

How can cognitive sciences help drive change in an organisation? Why should companies know more about it? 

We consider the Human Factor the key enabler to the emergence of sustainable impact and durable adoption of new practices. In a context where companies’ ability to transform is critical to not only their development but to their survival, the Human Factor should be seen as one of their key assets. Investing in better understanding is equipping the organisation to thrive.

If we dive specifically into the transformation toward shared value sustainable models, it is particularly relevant. For organisations, and the individuals who are part of them, the change journey is both in imagining a desirable future and taking action to implement it. We all have to learn new knowledge, new ways of mobilising it and put it in motion by creating new ways of collaborating.

How can leaders embark all their teams toward new behaviours? If they had to follow one advice, what would it be?

Leading change today requires investing in leaders for them to know how to create this environment enabling change. At Humans Matter we talk about 4 meta-competencies for change leaders: 

  • CARE, meaning being able to focus their attention to others and the environment, being able to observe, describe, and evaluate the quality of the interactions in an ecosystem.
  • DESIGN SIMPLIFYING STORIES: in an ambition where leaders seek to engage a diverse audience in a project with multiple components that have dependencies, causal links, feedback loops sometimes, using tools like dystopian stories for example is a real enabler. It is like a trick that helps our brain function in a complex environment.

Developing those 4 meta-competencies takes intention.

Care, design simplifying stories, create common purpose & shared intentions, and foster collaborative networks are the four meta-competencies of change leaders.

Sustainability roadmaps last for decades. How to keep motivation in the long run?

An example of a cognitive approach to leverage to maintain momentum and impact when driving change programs is the virtuous cognitive loop of Attention, Intentions, and Actions. Achieving change means achieving actions. The path starts with capturing the attention of the relevant stakeholders and purposefully mobilising the attention of your audience. In this attentional space, you can build shared intentions that will drive collective action. It is important to create collective engagement around those intentions: involving your audience in setting targets together or brainstorming on how to achieve them. While the group takes action, bringing feedback on impact or progress is a way to empower, hence motivating stakeholders to pursue their collective ambition.

It is also key to understand that this process is not linear but works in a virtuous circle of retro-actions. Our actions, attentions, and intentions influence each other: when defining intentions, we reinforce our ability to pay attention to the topics we focused our intention on. When we act and observe our progress, satisfaction from our achievements pushes us to take further actions. As an example, if we learn more about our carbon footprint (attention), we are encouraged to try to reduce it (intention). As we change our habits in this direction (actions), we learn more about it, we discuss it (driving more attention), and set new goals (intentions).

attentions intentions actions, drive change with cognitive sciences

Developing the virtuous cognitive loop of Attentions, Intentions, Actions allows for maintaining the momentum. Photo Credit: Human Matters

Driving change requires innovation, out-the-box thinking, and unexpected partnerships. Which environment can favour this creativity?

People don’t foresee the value they can bring in an environment far from their common field of practice. It takes trust and empowerment to support their exploration. This trust has to be coupled with enabling effective collaboration. In our current complex and uncertain environment, solutions come from crossing diverse perspectives and knowledge. Leaders need to help build bridges across functions and technical expertise. They need to allow collaboration between stakeholders that are all along the value chain and who usually don’t work together.

Trust and effective collaboration don’t happen just because the CEO decides to. They happen because leaders manage the teams and the business in a way that fosters this trust and enables this collaboration: nurturing the relevant management culture across their organisation, allowing constructive confrontation, valuing failures as opportunities to learn, developing awareness of how their behaviour influences others’ and being able to coach their teams to develop this awareness themselves.

drive change with cognitive sciences and human factor

Collaborative gamified workshops like The Climate Fresk develop the ability to act individually and collectively. Here’s Pernod Ricard engaging their employees during their annual Responsib’All day. Photo Credit: Pernod Ricard

Could you share concrete examples of successful applications of Human Factor knowledge? 

The carpet company Interface is a good example. The Beyond Zero documentary highlights how Ray Anderson, their CEO, worked with intention to embark his whole organisation on his transformative vision. At different stages in the documentary, you can witness the change management approach leveraging cognitive design. Take the way the company invested in observing nature to inspire impactful innovation for example. The CEO’s trust and empowerment were critical in bringing a biologist into the mix, totally outside of her usual field of practice, and getting stakeholders from the whole value chain to work together, learn each other’s language, build a common purpose, and testing solutions until they achieve their ambition.

Their annual offsite meeting is also a great illustration of the power of the cognitive retro-action loop I mentioned. We can see the leadership team using the day-to-day experience of the employees in their hotel as the means to mobilise their attention: how do you hang your towels? Do you turn your AC off? How much food waste do you leave on your plates? By sharing figures on their everyday actions, they got their attention. Once attention is mobilised, they set targets to achieve for the week. They work at creating engagement around those intentions: involving the audience in setting the targets together or brainstorming on how to achieve them. While the group takes action, Ray’s team brings back measurements of progress made. By doing so, the audience is empowered and motivated to pursue their collective ambition, building on new moments of attention.

Landscape in the mountain

Amandine de Gorguette d’Argoeuves experienced the out-the-box thinking at Creative Collision 2021. Photo Credit: SVIHK

How can I get my company, my team, or my family ready for change? 

I think the first step of awareness is critical. Not just raising awareness of the need for change, but awareness of our own and others’ cognitive mechanisms. Individuals, social groups or organisations have different maturity levels in their sustainability journey. We need to develop our ability to understand our own and others’ maturity and posture in facing the need for change.

Only once we are aware of what we know and what we don’t know we can focus our attention on what matters. We need to work at creating an attentional space where we, individually and collectively, can learn, build a common ambition, and explore new ways.

Do you personally apply your understanding of the Human Factor to adopt a more sustainable way of life? 

One of the major changes I adopted while progressing in my learning journey around cognitive design came from the understanding that experience precedes learning. It is such an important pillar. When you start putting it into practice, you realise how universal and powerful it is. Your brain anchors new knowledge when your body experiences a situation. I have to admit it helped me both professionally, in the way I support our clients when we design change roadmaps, and in my personal life, in the way I support my friends and family in their sustainability journey, or with my kids in their development or academic learning.

In the Beyond Zero documentary featuring Interface’s transformation towards a sustainable model, this cognitive approach to learning and the ability to act is also well illustrated. The CEO takes his employees to successfully experience this concept of shared value during their offsite. Once they have experienced it, they anchor this new knowledge as their own and they can move towards transferring it to another area of practice. The fact that they experienced it collectively prompts another cognitive mechanism: they created shared memories. Shared memories are powerful triggers for collective action. It facilitates future remobilisation of knowledge.

About Amandine de Gorguette d’Argoeuves

Amandine de Gorguette d’Argoeuves is a corporate transformation professional. As a consultant with Capgemini and as a changemaker in internal transformation teams, she has been helping organisations in Hong Kong, the US, and in France to improve their effectiveness and enhance their impact for 15 years. She recently graduated from Hong Kong University’s Master of Sciences in Environmental Management, and now focuses on supporting sustainable corporate transformation with Humans Matter, a global cognitive design consulting company.