Hey, It’s Not Brain Surgery!

Having just come through brain surgery, I’ve learned valuable life lessons that can also be applied to change and transformation management.

A little background context – In early January, 2012, I started experiencing problems with my vision and after a series of tests culminating with an MRI in early April, was diagnosed with a pituitary macroadenoma – in layman’s terms, a 4.0 cm benign tumour situated between my brain and my pituitary gland.

The Outcome – On June 4, a neurosurgical team at theOttawaHospital performed the surgery to remove the tumour using a minimally invasive, Endoscopic Endonasal Approach (EEA).    The surgery was made more complicated by the fact that the tumour had grown to approximately 4.0 cm in diameter and had to be removed through my nostril via a deviated septum.    Despite the complications, the tumour was successfully extracted in one piece and an MRI the next day confirmed that the area was “clean”, setting the foundation for a quick recovery and an excellent long term prognosis.

How I Prepared and What I Learned – When I was initially diagnosed with the tumour and the prospect of a serious surgery, I contacted the renowned sports psychologist Dr. Terry Orlick (www.zoneofexcellence.ca) to ask his advice on how to prepare for this event.   Years ago, I had read Terry’s book “In Pursuit of Excellence” which chronicled Terry’s work with athletes and high-performance executives, and we had invited Terry to one of Systemscope’s corporate retreats in 2008 to present and discuss techniques on achieving higher levels of performance.

After a long talk, Terry offered me these three pieces of advice:

  1. Focus on positive outcomes
  2. “Change the channel” and think positive
  3. Lean on your support networks

The advice prepared me well for the surgery, but it also made me think of how this applies readily to any person, or any organization, about to undergo a major event or transformation.  Based on my own experience, I would add two additional lessons learned:

  1. Communicate effectively and be persistent
  2. Celebrate success and acknowledge who got you there

Applying the lessons of Brain Surgery to Transformation and Change Management

Let’s examine each of these five areas in more detail:

  1. Focus on positive outcomes – as an engineer, it would have been too easy for me to get caught up in process details: testing, consultations, surgical delays, worrying about things beyond your control etc.   Instead, Terry recommended that I focus on positive outcomes – the removal of the tumour, restored eyesight, and re-established quality of life.   In organizational transformation and change management, the same technique can be applied – establish a vision of what outcome(s) should result:  greater system efficiencies, better service to clients, or increased productivity.  Once you set your eye on the outcome and keep it there, you can enhance your enablers for success and minimize any barriers or risks along the way.
  2. “Change the channel” and think positive – this was one of the more creative techniques that Terry taught me and it worked remarkably well.   Terry told me to think about picturing a large TV screen in front of me.  Whenever negative or worrisome thoughts crept in about the upcoming surgery, he suggested that I simply “switch the channel” to positive, outcome-based thinking.  I must admit that my visual depiction of changing the channel literally meant going “old school” and turning a dial on a TV rather than use a remote, but nonetheless, the positive imagery served me well before the operation and again during my recovery phase.    Too often and too easily during major change, we embrace a level of negativity or cynicism that can spread like poison and bring down even the most well-planned change management programs.   To mitigate this, I believe that the onus must be on each individual throughout the organization to deal with change using positive behaviours that foster a culture of optimism and progression.   Feeling down about changes to your organization?  Change the channel and look for the positive possibilities.
  3. Lean on your support networks.   Terry had reminded me that I was under the care of one of the best neuro-surgeons in the world, a pioneer in the EEA, and in one of the best medical institutions inNorth America.  Further, I had an amazingly supportive family and colleagues at work, and a wonderful network of friends I could draw upon through this process.   Applying this to organizational transformation, the same can also be said.  You’re not alone in change management – seek out the strong and supportive leaders who can make change happen effectively and lean on your colleagues to collectively get you through the transformation.
  4. Communicate effectively and be persistent.    Although it may seem obvious that communicating effectively is a basic tenet of dealing with stressful events (and in many cases a foregone conclusion), I never took communication for granted.  Apart from the therapeutic value of just talking about my tumour and the surgery, strong and persistent communication with medical practitioners in the days and weeks leading up to the operation left me feeling more comfortable and confident about the event.   In organizational transformation and change management, lip service is frequently paid to positive and effective communication, but the actions rarely reflect the intent.   This leaves managers and staff confused, anxious and prone to rumour mills, which in turn create a compound effect of negative stress.   Rather than turn the communications taps off during times of challenge or change, put a communications framework and strategy in place quickly, and let the messaging flow both ways!
  5. Celebrate success and acknowledge who got you there.    In the days following the surgery, I sent thank you cards and flowers to the surgical team and recovery ward nurses.   I wrote a letter to the CEO of theOttawaHospital acknowledging the success of the surgery and the professionalism of all staff involved along my journey.   I took the time to cite particular individuals who I felt had gone beyond the call of duty.   The responses that I received were completely unexpected and articulated increased morale for them and their staff.  Executives and managers have to take the same steps during programs of change to recognize and celebrate success at regular intervals (not just at the end) and acknowledge their staff’s contributions.  They should cite the Herculean efforts of key individuals and trumpet achievements over all channels.

So there you have it – brain surgery preparation applied to organizational transformation and change management in 5 easy steps!   In all seriousness, these tips combined with a strong roadmap of change, communications and engagement strategy, can go a long way to help individuals and organizations prepare for and achieve successful outcomes in times of major challenge and change.


Denis Barbeau is a Systemscope Partner and engineer with more than 15 years of experience helping public sector clients to successfully address significant organizational and business challenges. As the Practice Lead for Strategic Business Consulting, Denis’ experience and specializations include business planning and transformation, organizational redesign, governance and integrated process management. Denis’ broad experience in the public and private sectors, coupled with excellent communication skills, allows him to leverage best practices for a wide variety of organizations and propose achievable solutions for the benefit of his clients. In 2008, Denis was named one of the National Capital Region’s Forty under 40 by the Ottawa Business Journal. The awards recognize business people under the age of 40 for their career accomplishments, professional expertise and community and charitable involvement


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