Consider our poor overworked brains! Frontal cortex forward, we probe, plan, problems-solve, perpetuate and, eventually, perspire. Work has begun to feel like, well …work! While our brains are on overload the body keeps the score (title of author Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk excellent book on toxic stress). Our body is always involved. Whether feeling enthusiasm in our core or weariness in our bones; we are biological creatures first. Humans are highly sensitive, adaptive biological systems with enormous unused potential. Yet, the conundrum continues, how to break the cycle of exhaustion, isolation, and despair?
We, the designers of the Animalia Series, look to biological and neurobiological research to help address existential questions that arise during a multiyear global pandemic. The authors are a leadership development facilitator and a generative systems designer who together created both a game and a transformation process for leaders and teams. Each of us have studied with and are inspired by Dr. Humberto Maturana, a revolutionary biologist Phd. from Harvard, who worked at MIT and the University of Chile. Our process reflects his research and insights, and inspired us from systems thinking to ontological design.
The question asked frequently by countless team members,
How can I make my living and working more satisfying?
And the questions asked by conscious leaders,
How do I respond to and deal with constant change without confusing others?
How do I help a dispersed team feel connected, focused, appreciated, and productive?
Important questions and ones worth thinking about. And here we come to the first hurdle; it seems impossible to expect an overtaxed brain to find the answer when it is itself a part of the problem. We have trained ourselves to think our way through a variety of life’s problems. At times, this works well, sometimes not. So, what’s the alternative?
In looking at the emergent fields of cultural-biology and neurobiology, we realize that our ability to accurately apprehend and effectively respond to life’s opportunities and challenges is a whole-body function. The brain always plays an important, but not singular role in problem solving and decision making.
Thus, we apply the three-brain model of engaging the world in a way that is expansive, deeply satisfying and ultimately more productive. We have devised a system for complex team activities such as developing strategy or markets, designing a new process or transforming organizational cultures. The three-brain model is easily understood as head brain, heart brain and gut brain. Through Animalia we seek what Claudio Naranjo calls "a balanced development of “three-brained beings,” in whom a balance has been achieved between the intellectual, emotional, and instinctive sub-selves that constitute our mind".
Three Brains are Better Than One:
Here’s how it works. We begin by making, what for many people is, a shift from head to body as we simply become aware of what signals our body may be sending us. Interestingly, those “signals” are the start of part one of Animalia - an exploration of our inner world. It is designed as a game complete with game board, tokens, cards, dice. The offer of a game is a deliberate way to bring a team together in a playful way that feels both safe and exciting and does not rely on the head for insight and direction. Since our body never lies, truthfulness is always a good way to start.
Playing is Better Than Working:
Players in part one will be relying on the heart brain as they navigate a landscape representing a person or team’s inner world. Unlike the head brain, the heart brain is non-rational and structured to interpret and process feelings. During the game, feelings are registered as either pleasant and expansive or unpleasant and, possibly, constricting. This is not a judgement of good feelings or bad, rather an opportunity to make space for all feelings allowing us to consider how emotions support or detract from our sense of competence and well-being. In that we live in a culture that favors rationalism, emotions can be easily dismissed as unimportant, or worse, weakness in the worlds of organizations. What we have learned from playing Animalia with hundreds of individuals across many cultures is that emotional insight leads to clear thinking, trusting relationships, and a stronger sense of self trust. An understanding of the heart brain reveals the limits of rational thinking as the sole means of addressing complex business, societal and environmental challenges. We are at our best when we integrate these sources of intelligence, wisdom if you will.
While the exercise is sure to provide a team shared understanding of who we are, and, why we operate as we do, teams report the most exciting aspect of part one is that in the right atmosphere – one of honesty, support, and curiosity – the opportunity to change presents itself and is often the route taken in a way that strengthens team performance and pride. The first-round ends with a team assessment of “emotional awareness” for engaging in part two.
Emotional Readiness Leads to Change Readiness:
Transformation starts with emotional readiness. According to social psychologists Noon et al, emotional readiness means "ready and willing to act for the welfare of present and future generations", without doubt an endless job.The game board reveals an infinity figure diagram as a map of the journey ahead. If part one draws from heart brain, part two engages heart and head brains simultaneously. The infinity loop is figuratively a journey in the outer world complete with opportunities to test and validate a team’s “change readiness”. This portion asks us to imagine and articulate individual and team concerns and intentions on each of five significant building blocks of individual and team resilience which include: care, conservation, co-creation, collaboration and contribution.
Participants find that using images before applying language is an excellent way to uncover new findings, new possibilities, and likely speed bumps. The team’s work in part two is to calibrate areas of high, medium, and questionable internal reliability; to make team commitments; and to create a team development plan. The second round concludes with a joint self assessment of the team’s “change readiness” to advance to part three.
By this point the team has already begun to anticipate what parts of planning will be done with ease and which part will require a process of enhanced reflection. Part three’s outcomes have to do with commitment and planning. In this phase, team members are applying heart, head and gut brains in a way that brings forth energy, purpose, creativity, pragmatic action and contemplative leadership.
The best way to describe gut intelligence is to acknowledge our own experience of moments when you had grounded insight – a kind of inherent awareness of “self in the world”. Dealing in cognitive data can often lead to second guessing and a desire for more data. When we rely largely on the heart brain we may find the flow of emotions can make one feel unsteady. Whereas, decisions from the gut are based less on feelings and more on making careful observations of what the system requires and what we are able to contribute. The highly attuned gut brain is at the confluence of both head brain (data) and heart brain (feelings plus reflection). We may call it a “gut-feeling”, but it is much more than a mere impulse or a fleeting idea. We can be confident and focused as well as open and accessible. Historically this contemplative process has been called discernment.
Plans and ideas that are made purely from the head brain are too often seen as interesting, even compelling, yet we know that only a small portion of plans are fully actualized. There are countless reasons for this; yet one that stands out is that the planning process does not always engage in a way that ensures a high level of individual and organizational commitment. (e.g. the plan is brilliant and impossible to do!) The gut brain is adept at transforming our awareness into effective action and easily aligned with individual and organizational purpose.
To avoid the sabotage of our sometimes egoistic head brain, Animalia integrates a neurobiological technology. The embodiment process is a solution for the desired organizational change. We call it transformation - innovation without rigidity, resistance or fear. The process includes organic adaptation (emotional readiness to deal with circumstances, volatile and fast change) and active adoption (change readiness for learning behaviors, implementing new systems, etc.). In short an opportunity for experts and thought leaders to transform themselves and engage in sage leadership.
Planning-Acting Is More Than a Cognitive Activity:
In the third phase of the process, plans are reviewed and gauged with a measure of commitment. Individuals and teams who are making solid commitments are making use of the gut brain. Purposeful collective action demands high levels of self and team trust and a shared inspiration that is supported by being present in the work. Gaining that level of commitment is neither purely an intellectual nor emotional event as much as it is a sense of grounding and confidence in self and others that allows for significant change in this complex world. This describes how we are when our intentions are firm and yet we are also connected to our peers. This is decision-making from the gut celebrating an always changing environment.
The Challenge of Reintegrating After a Long Absence:
The Animalia series is a multi-session team experience with options for in-person and on-line work. It is an ideal vessel for teams and organizations who are contemplating a post-pandemic “first encounter” designed to celebrate being together again while also signaling that we accept the rapidly changing environment and are getting ready to be transformational leaders ourselves.
"Teams require time together, not only to plan, but also to process emotions, insights, and possibilities. Team members work best when they feel heard, understood, and appreciated. Use of the game, Animalia, strengthened team relationships and brought greater clarity about our shared challenges."
Team coaches – U.S, Canada and Australia, 2019.
"Identifying how emotions impact our outlook, perceptions and ultimately our actions has helped me reassess how I can increase my job effectiveness and sense of well-being. When I apply these approaches with my clients, they begin to make significant shifts toward greater self-regard and agency."
Experienced social worker – Chicago, 2021.
"As with most entrepreneurs, we tend to have a lot of ideas, a high level of passion, and a desire to win. It is only when we engage in a process that encourages us to reflect, listen and engage in an inclusive environment do we agree on actions that ultimately serve both the organization and, especially, our clients."
North American Healthcare Startup, 2019.
"It is amazing when you pause to consider the precise emotions you are experiencing, then reflect on them and begin seeing hidden possibilities. I found a level of hope, joy and optimism in playing a game that celebrates our ability to shift perspectives by attending to our always present emotions."
Divisional Operations Leader, Global Consulting Firm, 2020.
"I found that working through the steps of personal resilience has helped me to reconsider and recalibrate the various ways I add value as well as giving me clarity on the self-imposed obstacles that keep me from reaching full potential and sustained satisfaction.
Thought Leader - Global Consulting, 2021
Rob Hartz Littleton, Massachusetts firstname.lastname@example.org
Juan Pablo A. Sanchez King AKA Lucas La Paz, BCS, México email@example.com