Book Review: Brain-Savvy Business by Jan Hills

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Title: Brain-Savvy Business​
Author: Jan Hills, Founder, Head Heart + Brain
ISBN: 978-0992900748
Reviewer: David Evans, Burn Bridge Associates
Reviewer's rating: 4 out of 5

Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain

Since reading Jan Hills’ 2014 book “Brain-savvy HR”, I’ve been awaiting the chance to review more from this thoughtful and thought-provoking author. So, here we now have a follow-up which extends her exploration of neuroscience to a broader platform.

This is a weighty book – literally and well as figuratively – and is designed, I think, to be a reference tome as much as a ‘solid read’. Indeed, the author acknowledges this in her comment “whether you skip straight to the case studies, the science or how it plays out in business, it doesn’t matter” (p. 13).

The author’s purpose is to bring relevant findings from neuroscience in order to address some of the generic management issues faced by organisations. She does so using a well-defined structure. The generic issues - eight principles, as Hills labels them – form the core of the book, with information arranged into a summary of the science, its application to the principle, a relevant and comprehensive case study, some delivery tools, and summary and follow-up references. Hills cross-references the generic management issues with some common business challenges, which comprise Change, New skills, Leadership impact, Diversity and inclusion, Decision-making, People-engagement, Performance management, Time management.

There is, for example, a useful set of principles around performance management on pages 131-133. Understanding some of the neuroscientific principles at play during a performance management review add real depth to a subject that is often treated primarily as a process in organisations, rather than as an opportunity to develop greater employee engagement and commitment.

Each of the Principle chapters starts with a really helpful list of common questions that businesses or managers might be facing, in relation to the content of the chapter. This approach works well because it encourages the reader to prepare their own mindset for the content to come and importantly also locates the content firmly in the reader’s own context.

The recurring concept expounded in this book is that many of our neuroscientific responses originate from our relationship with the people and environment around us, and from our perception of pain and reward (it is not the role of a review to explain this in detail: for more, you’ll just have to go out and get a copy of this book!).

In order to utilise these basic neuroscientific principles, Hills and her team have developed a model for aiding understanding in people: it is the acronym CORE, which stands for – Certainty, Options, Reputation and Equity. This appears frequently throughout the book (the CORE checklist on page 60, for example) and is useful in explaining how some of the principles are deployed in practice.

A theme that repeats throughout the book is the use of language. It is the choice of words that often provokes the reward-pain response and it is through words that we display (or is betray?!) our personal preferences, dilemmas and subliminal messages. And, it is through words and deeds that managers create the conditions in which behavioural change can take place.

The author also acknowledges the importance of Purpose throughout the book, linking it – for example – to the development of high-performing teams, and to the management of unconscious biases. Purpose is explained partially by connecting it back to Certainty in the CORE model: certainty is about having the confidence in what the future holds – purpose anchors one’s future and thus reinforces a sense of certainty.

The layout of the book is interesting. Although it is over 400 pages in length, the book is punctuated by lots of space – part-pages left blank. Was this deliberate, I wonder? – like me, Hills advocates the power of reflection and a slowing-down of our mental processes, in order to enjoy the richness that emerges from not simply doing things with our automated self. The book’s layout seems, to me, to embody this thinking.

I appreciate the reading-and-watching references that follow each chapter. Hills is clearly at pains to support the reader as much as possible in following up on points of personal interest. I appreciate less the mixing of American and English spellings throughout the book (program and programme are both used; and ‘practicing’- which is used frequently - is the American spelling of the verb ‘to practise’): one or the other would have sufficed!

One challenge I would have is that the book’s ambitious structure does not quite work for me: the link between generic management issues and common business challenges is a little forced and I didn’t really find it added the value I was expecting at the beginning.

However, this is a rich book; full of useful insight, with links to issues that managers should find very familiar.

The case studies are fulsome and helpful in understanding the practical implication, and the supporting section on tools in each chapter is also practical and valuable. For those with an interest in neuroscience and its impact in the world of work, but with a limited practical knowledge, this is a great reference book which offers the opportunity for us to deal with our business challenges from a much more knowledgeable perspective.

I think that both HR practitioners and line managers will find this a challenging and informative read. It will definitely add value to the thinking from both perspectives, in terms of people-management, people-processes and effective people-oriented strategy.

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence, HRZone

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.

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