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How to train your brain for change

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 15 Apr 2024

Change is a part of the way we work – and most people aren’t keeping up with it. A lot of that comes down to mindset, but it’s possible to prepare your mind to embrace change.

Eddie Obeng approaches all problems like an engineer, by taking a holistic look and trying to find solutions that best solve them. The current problem he is putting his mind towards is affecting all leaders across the globe: change.

The pace of change is happening at such a massive pace and scale that most leaders cannot keep up, the author, public speaker and founder of the Pentacle Virtual Business School explains. The extent of the change is so massive that many do not see that it is happening. 

“People are doing things that make sense to them, but aren’t particularly useful in the long term,” he says. “The pace of change is quite fast and a lot of that change is pretty invisible; for example, software updates that add new technology and features without you noticing.”

This change is happening through competition and innovation, but also because of poor governance. It is also being driven by governmental action such as regulation. With all of this happening at once, it’s muddying the water, so people don’t realise just how fast things are changing. 

“Most people, when they’re planning, take their past experience and use that to try to work out what they’re going to do. That doesn’t work anymore. You have to plan in reverse, now. You have to have a guess at where you’re going to end up and then work out the steps together.”

Likewise, leaders can no longer rely on their experience as a source for their decision-making as a leader. Now, whoever is closest to the change has the best answer. 

Four factors holding back change

It all leaves leaders with four factors that they need to address. The first of these is the typical thought process. Many ideas are becoming obsolete due to the rate of change, but we are hardwired to cling to the familiar. 

“Some CFOs might decide, for example, that you can only trust the things you can touch,” says Obeng. “Therefore, the organisation will never take payments in Bitcoin. That seems like a sensible idea. It’s worked quite well for hundreds of years. But it’s probably an obsolete idea.”

So leaders need to change their thinking – which is easier said than done. Our mental defence mechanisms can sometimes get in the way, says Obeng. “To move into a different way of thinking, you have to become curious. You have to go where you’ve never been before. You should go wherever the fear is. Curiosity, therefore, requires a level of courage. That allows your brain to go and explore, which then gets you to better thoughts and newer ideas.”

The second factor is behaviour. People will tend to respond and interact with you depending on your behaviour. For example, if you’re a very structured person, people are more likely to bring you very structured information. People want you to feel that they’re doing a good job, so they’re more likely to tell you what they think you want to hear, Obeng explains. “Your own behaviour limits the number of relationships and the complexity of the relationships you have.”

Third, leaders must look at the emotional environment. People need to feel comfortable to change along with you. That means feeling able to fail and feeling comfortable with uncertainty. Finally, prioritising actions: there’s too much to do to be able to do it all, so leaders need to be able to figure out what is best for the organisation, which isn’t necessarily what your competitors are doing. “If we do that, we’re not showing courage and we’re not really thinking.”

Obeng, who is speaking on leading through change at the ICAEW Annual Conference in October, recommends some simple first steps towards changing your mindset to better fit to the working environment. 

Make time to learn

“Time is the most important thing, before anything else. We always make time for the things we love doing, so you can make time if you look for it. Find a way to carve out a couple of hours a week, every week. 

Focus on the things you fear

Obeng recommends that CFOs and other leaders go towards the things they don't know. “It’s part of the curiosity game. Start connecting to other people. Don’t worry about feeling stupid because there's a lot to learn. In fact, if you’re talking to somebody and you’re not feeling stupid, you’re probably wasting your time.”

Get your hands dirty

Leaders should learn by doing, says Obeng. Their new knowledge should not be theoretical. “If you don’t trust digital currencies, take 100 quid of your own money, go to Coinbase and start trading. If you’re trying to understand how digital transformation will affect the US management of your assets, go and track down the assets. If sustainability is crucial for your business, go and plant some trees or something similar. Make sure you know what it’s really about.”

Look at others (but don’t copy them)

It’s useful to know what others are doing in the space you’re interested in, but make sure that you don’t just copy their actions. If you do that, you’ll still be behind the curve, says Obeng. “Assume that by the time you get there, there’ll be no advantage or margin.”

Look at more than one source

“In the modern environment, everyone’s really good at marketing and persuasion. Most of the stuff you read is probably nonsense, so be aware of that and check what people are saying and promising.”

Having done that, leaders will be in a position to bring their people into the process in a way that feels comfortable for them. “Set up an environment where people can help you. Whether you’re a CFO, or whether you’re advising CFOs, you need to build that capability.” 

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