It turns out the consciousness isn’t quite what it seems. When it comes to the decision-making process, neuroscientists have discovered something fascinating. They have found that we actually decide before we become aware that we’re deciding. In other words, we make our decision before we know that we’re in the process of making it.

It appears that what neuroscientists call ‘action potentials’ are what actually drive our behaviour. As author and therapist Dr Bosch explains in her excellent book Illusions, “action potentials are electrical signals in the brain through which neurons connect and transmit information.” On average, they emerge “half a second [before] the moment somebody decides to (consciously) act.”

Or as Tor Norretranders outlines: ‘The intention to take action becomes conscious long after the brain has started to coordinate the action. But the consciousness occurs before the action is carried out.’

As Bosch notes, the system is ingenious. “Without me having to worry about anything – while I have the illusion that I am aware of everything – my actions are controlled by an invisible director.”

The below diagram depicts the phenomenon:



Bosch points out how this tells us not only “how strongly we are influenced by unconscious factors”, but also that we do have a ‘get out’. We become aware of the action before we execute the action. As neurologist Benjamin Libet contends, this gives us, at least in theory, a ‘power of veto.’

Relevance to change management

OK, so what’s the relevance to change management? I believe that those with senior influence often behave in an analogous way. They are being controlled by forces mostly outside of their awareness, whilst having the illusion that they are in control. And like our consciousness, they retain the power of veto. They can often stop certain actions in their tracks.

We tend to think of organisations that are struggling to change as being those with ‘traditional’ cultures, or those that are not adopting this or that set of practices or values. We say that they need to start emulating the practices and cultures of their more successful peers. However, could it be that the changes the company needs to make are continually emerging as unfulfilled ‘action potentials’? Could these ‘action potentials’ be the proposals, complaints and suggestions of their staff? Could it be that the real problem is that those in authority are vetoing actions that should be allowed to happen?

It seems to me that organisations often act like a “stuck” individual who knows deep down that they need to change, but who continually check their impulse to move towards what’s good for them. If those in authority in organisations could get better at bringing what’s in their shadow into the light, at allowing those ‘action potentials’ to manifest, then perhaps they’d be able to innovate and adapt more easily.

The executives at 3M provide a great example of this ability to let ‘action potentials’ manifest. In the late 60s/early 70s, they chose not to veto Dr Spencer Silver‘s stumbling experiment with reposition-able notes. After many years bubbling under the radar as an ‘action potential’, Art Fry picked up the idea as an “adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymn book“. After further testing, in 1979 that reposition-able note finally became what we know now as the Post-it Note – a billionaire-dollar product.


Often change management is less about searching for new ideas and more about not vetoing all the potentially successful experiments itching to emerge.

We have developed a partnership with Cognitive Edge. Together we offer a ‘Culture Scan’ service – a unique and lightweight surveying technique based on ethnographic principles – to help you harness the action potentials across your company.

Contact us here to learn more.