Please Share

Power of Neuroscience: How to Harness it for Project Success

Power of Neuroscience: How to Harness it for Project Success

In this article, I review Carole Osterweil’s (spoiler) excellent book, Neuroscience for Project Success. But, it’s more than a review. I also share some of the key ideas from neuroscience, so you’ll understand why this is such an important book for all project, program, and change managers to buy, read, and re-read.

Our Agenda

Power of Neuroscience: How to Harness it for Project Success

Here’s what I’ll cover in this review of Neuroscience for Project Success: Why people behave as they do.

So, I am going to answer four questions for you:

  1. What is Neuroscience?
  2. Why Should I Care about Neuroscience, as a Project Manager?
  3. What are the Core Ideas of Neuroscience?
  4. Why is Neuroscience for Project Success such a Good Investment?

Neuroscience for Project Managers Interview

Before we start, you may like to take a look at this interview I did with Carole Osterweil. However, if you prefer to read first and watch later, I will also put a link back to this interview at the end of the article.

Do note that the interview and this article are different. We cover some different ground and, in the interview, Carole explains things in her way. In this article, I use my own way of explaining the parts I am most familiar with. So, you’ll get two different (but overlapping and complementary) perspectives.

What is Neuroscience?

In the academic world, neuroscience is the study of our nervous system, with the primary focus being the brain. But it also includes everything the brain connects to: your spinal cord, and your central and peripheral nervous systems.

Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary subject, which combines anatomy, physiology, molecular biology, cell biology, psychology, biochemistry, and loads more. It aims to understand all the properties and behaviors of our nervous system and brain. 

But, we are not neuroscientists, nor academics. We need the bits that will help us better lead people and deliver our projects. A useful working definition in our context is:

Neuroscience is about understanding how the brain works, so we can learn to control our responses, manage behaviors, and make resourceful choices.

It brings in a load of elements that most project managers have some knowledge and understanding of:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology and Behavioral Science
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Motivation
  • Communication Skills

And, if that is not enough to persuade you of its value to you and your career, let’s dive a little deeper…

Why Should I Care about Neuroscience, as a Project Manager?

Carole Osterweil builds her first substantive chapter around the assertion that the ‘old way’ of doing project management is no longer sustainable – and that’s my term, not hers. 

Instead, she looks at the priorities for our profession from six perspectives. Those of:

  1. Project Management
  2. Program Management
  3. Risk Management
  4. The Sponsor or SRO (Senior Responsible Officer – a term used in the PRINCE2 methodology)
  5. PMO
  6. Change Management

This is an excellent way of introducing the challenges that we face. And, crucially, neuroscience – and Carole’s book, in particular – has something to contribute to mastering each of them.

Carole’s Challenges for Neuroscience to Address

I’ll summarize those challenges for you, to see how many will resonate. Each of them comes from the insights of one or more highly experienced professionals, whom Carole interviewed.

  • Shedding the legacy of command and control
  • Adapting a new style of (facilitative) leadership
  • Being an outsider (to the team)
  • Building a vision as the bridge to collaboration
  • Sustaining the vision
  • Embedding change
  • Governance and assurance
  • Having the conversations you need to have
  • Balancing ambition with reality in the initiation phase
  • Mental gymnastics and holding to outcomes during the delivery phase
  • Reporting and speaking truth to power
  • Providing reassurance
  • Creating the journey planner
  • Resilience and self-confidence

Volatile – Uncertain – Complex – Ambiguous… VUCA and Neuroscience

It has become a cliché that we live and work in a VUCA world. And the day-to-day project context, where we are delivering novel products under time and resource pressure, is more VUCA than most.

Carole points out that this is stressful, and her Project Stress Cycle is one of the clearest and most helpful articulations of this that you will see. More than that, the drive to succeed (and success is what the book is about) can make the environment toxic. But, with ideas like psychological safety and a growth mindset, there are ways to detoxify a high-performance culture and get more success.

What are the Core Ideas of Neuroscience?

I have picked five core ideas from Carole’s book that I believe every project manager should have a basic grasp of. These are essential to your ability to properly lead and manage your team, and to engage constructively with your stakeholders.

They are:

  1. The Triune Brain
  2. David Rock’s SCARF Model
  3. Avoid and Approach Responses
  4. Stress: Long-term Impact of the Avoid Response
  5. Emotional Intelligence

The Triune Brain

The triune brain model is a gross oversimplification of the huge complexity of a real brain. It may not be as bad as the left-brain/right-brain model in representing how we think, but it’s vital to recognize it as a model and not a description of reality.

But, as a model, it contains some helpful truths that form the basis for many of the practical tools and methods of applying neuroscience ideas to the world of work.

I have illustrated my understanding of it below.

The Triune Brain

Carole has a similar image (with a different emphasis) in her book. But best of all, she presents Dan Siegel’s kinesthetic representation in my interview.

Three Layers

In evolutionary terms, our brains have developed more and more complex functions – each overlying (and integrating with) the last. We can simplify the human brain into three layers (hence triune’) with broad functions.

  1. The Brainstem: The Survival Layer
    This is the part of your brain that literally keeps you alive. It keeps your heart beating, your chest and diaphragm breathing, your body’s chemicals in balance, and your temperature regulated (homeostasis).
    I call this your ‘surviving brain’.
  2. The Limbic System: The Emotional Layer
    This is the part of your brain that responds emotionally, connecting events with memories, and driving your impulses, aversions, and desires.
    I call this your ‘thriving brain’.
  3. The Cortex: The Thinking Layer
    This is the part of your brain responsible for consciousness, reasoning, language, creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making. It’s the bit you need to have online and working well, while you are at work.
    I call this your ‘striving brain’.

Under Pressure: What Neuroscience Tells us

At our best, your thinking, striving brain is able to make sound decisions. But, under pressure, your senses trigger physiological changes. These overtake our conscious control and drive impulsive behaviors. We call the feelings we associate with the limbic system taking control, ‘emotions’.

Under urgent and extreme pressure, our responses close down to the most limited menu of options:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Fright (or freeze)
  • Flop

But, as they do, our limbic system shuts down everything it does not believe it needs for our survival, leaving only the brainstem working at full capacity.

This is why, under stress, we lose our:

  • Rationality
  • Appetite
  • Sex-drive
  • Immunity and repair responses

So, what are the triggers for the stress response?

David Rock’s SCARF Model

In all of our social behavior, we are driven to either:

  • Minimize perceived threats, or
  • Maximize perceived rewards 

And our responses to social threats and rewards are driven by the same brain networks as those that deal with our primary survival needs.

The big threats that trigger a stress response in our working lives (absent tigers and sharks) are social threats. And David Rock coined a memorable acronym to remind us of five of them that have a profound impact on us. 

However, while these threats are like ‘the dark side’, we can also turn them around into positive motivators too. This is Rock’s SCARF Model. Each of these is able to activate our primary reward or threat brain circuits:

  • Status
    How we feel we fit into the different groups we live and work with
  • Certainty
    The degree to which we feel we can reasonably predict what will affect us in the future
  • Autonomy
    How much or little control we feel we have over our lives and or choices
  • Relatedness
    The feeling of being connected to other people, and part of a social group
  • Fairness
    How we feel we are treated in comparison to others around us and to a personal ‘ideal’ of what is right and fair

So, how do these SCARF factors affect our behavior?

Avoid and Approach Responses

The main principle for how our brains work is simple:

Minimize threat: maximize reward

So, each new stimulus we encounter gets a tag as either:

  • ‘bad’ – so avoid it, or
  • ‘good’ – so approach it

But here’s the kicker. As I said above, our responses to social threats and rewards are broadly the same as those to survival threats and rewards – just not so extreme (usually).

How we Respond

It is your limbic system (emotional brain) that processes the stimulus and responds in a way that is proportional to your emotional response. And within your limbic system is a structure called the amygdala. This stores and recalls information about whether to approach or avoid, and how much significance to give to the stimulus.

Critically, all this happens before your cortex becomes consciously aware of what is going on. Therefore, a high valence stimulus can trigger a response, before you can decide what you want to do. This is sometimes known, colorfully, as ‘amygdala hijack’.

Therefore, the faster you can bring your thinking brain back online, the more resourcefully you can deal with:

  • Setbacks
  • Crises
  • Problems
  • Anger
  • Threats
  • …etc

If all this sounds bad, what about when we are constantly submerged in low- or even high-level threat stimuli, and constantly in avoidance mode,

Stress: Long-term Impact of the Avoid Response

This manifests as stress. We feel we have no control over our situation. Or, more precisely, less control than we feel we need. The long-term effects on individuals and teams can be devastating, in terms of performance and health.

It’s a big part of your responsibility as a Project Manager, to be aware of stress levels in yourself and your team. And not just that: you need to take steps to build resilience and to manage stress levels downwards, if they rise.

Emotional Intelligence

The last topic I want to cover in this quick survey of neuroscience ideas is that of Emotional Intelligence. Carole Osterweil makes an elegant link between this and neuroscience in chapter 5 of Neuroscience for Project Success, titled: ‘Skills that Everybody Needs’. 

This nicely casts emotional intelligence as the toolset for dealing with social threats. We have a full article about Emotional Intelligence:

However, what Carole does is cast the four domains of emotional intelligence in terms of the Thinking Brain and its role in project success:

  1. Self Awareness
    Assessing how online your Thinking Brain is
  2. Self Management
    Bringing your Thinking Brain online, and keeping it  online
  3. Social Awareness (empathy)
    Sensing how online their Thinking Brain is
  4. Relationship Management
    Helping to bring and keep their Thinking Brain online

For me, this is where Carole’s book moves into top gear. It’s where she starts to provide a constant stream of practical tools, that build on the core concepts we have discussed here, and my others besides.

Why is Neuroscience for Project Success such a Good Investment?

So, I think I have already made a strong case for learning about neuroscience. But, why this book?

Well, I have three reasons:

  1. A clear, simple-to-understand but reliable introduction to the underlying ideas
    Carole writes clearly and simply. She makes complex science easy to follow, yet selects simplifications that are appropriate. And, for the purposes she uses them, her models do not mislead. And academic neuroscientists may deprecate the Triune Brain as an explanation of brain science. But, as a model to help us understand what’s going on day-to-day, it’s great.
  2. Excellent level of contextualization to our profession
    I think Carole is the only person currently leading on the intersection of Project Management and Neuroscience. Her experience base means she fully understands the challenges we face and allows her to present the ideas and tools we most need.
  3. An impressive set of Practical Tools and Methods
    And the selection of tools she offers is wide and deep. There are ideas here for everyone. And, while I won’t warrant there to be something for every situation, neither can I spot a gap in her coverage. This is a great resource kit.

What You Get for Your Money

So, what’s in the resource kit?


Here are the 10 chapters of Neuroscience for Project Success:

  1. Introduction
  2. Projects Today
    Focuses on the six perspectives I discussed above
  3. Why People Behave as They Do
    The core science: Triune Brain, Approach and Avoidance, the SCARF model
  4. Groups and Stress Make VUCA More VUCA
    VUCA, complexity, the Project Stress Cycle, Psychological Safety
  5. Skills that Everybody Need
    Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness, Memory, Mental Health
  6. The Way We See the World
    The Bondi left-brain/right-brain model, focus vs integration, certainty vs uncertainty
  7. Start by Looking in on Yourself
    Toolkit for self-awareness and self-regulation
  8. Looking Outside Yourself: Bringing Others’ Thinking Brains Online
    Toolkit for Social Awareness and Relationship Management
  9. Case Studies
  10. Overturning Command and Control

There are also three appendices:

  1. Supporting Your Professional Development
    Linked to APM, PMI, and CMI
  2. How do I Apply the Ideas to Best Effect?
  3. Putting Words on Emotions and Sensations

Form Factor

As most of the Association for Project Management’s publications this is printed to:

  • A high quality
    Bright white, heavy paper, clear typeset, robust paperback
    But, APM, I am not a fan of your semi-shiny paper
  • An odd size
    246mm tall (9 11/16”) by 188mm wide (7 7/16”), by 166pp)
    this is neither a standard trade paperback – too big for that shelf – or a large format like PMI and Axelos publications.
  • A middling business publication price point
    This is not a cheap buy (at GB£25 print and £20 Kindle, ~ US$25 for the Kindle but [ffs, APM] no print edition in the US Amazon store)
    But, neither is it expensive.
    I think Pearson or Wiley would have published this at 70% to 80% of the price as a trade paperback, but the same publishers may have opted for 20% to 40% more as a niche business book.

You can buy your copy of Neuroscience for Project Success: Why people behave as they do.

My Conclusion

I shan’t waste words here.

Just buy it.

It’s an important topic, it’s a very good book, and you won’t regret the money you spend buying it nor the time you spend reading it.

You can buy your copy of Neuroscience for Project Success: Why people behave as they do.

Now, if you haven’t already, you may want to watch my interview with Carole Osterweil, author of Neuroscience for Project Success.

Have You Read Neuroscience for Project Success?

Did you love it? Did you hate it? (Go away – you can’t have) Or are you somewhere in between? (Yes, Moid, I’m a fan). Tell us below.

If not, get your copy of Neuroscience for Project Success: Why people behave as they do.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

follow me on: