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A few years ago, I met a nurse who explained the role of the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the brain.  She set her heart on purchasing a Pink Beetle car and since deciding to do that she noticed Pink Beetles wherever she travelled.  That is the RAS in action.

The RAS is located at the top of the spinal cord that regulates sleep-wake transitions and is considered to act as a pre-conscious filter for survival but can be used to encode Objectives.

Setting organisational objectives is key to being able to plan the work of strategy but also for encoding in the RAS.  If an organisation has just 1-3 measurable Objectives, that are easy to remember, then these are encoded in the RAS.  Now when work is enacted, the RAS will pre-consciously provide context for work choices.

The RAS

The RAS is a set of connected nuclei at the top of the spinal cord in the brain that is primarily responsible for regulating wakefulness and sleep-wake transitions.  The RAS connects the dorsal part of the posterior midbrain (associated with vision, hearing, motor control, sleep/wakefulness and temperature regulation) and anterior pons (associated with voluntary motor control and pain detection) to the cerebral cortex (associated with sensing and movement).  The RAS plays an important function in survival as it has direct control of sensing and motor functions without pre-processing in the pre-frontal cortex (the human thinking brain).  This means that much of its function is preconscious i.e. automatic once encoded with survival information.  An important feature of this is “habituation” – the process where the brain learns to ignore repetitive, meaningless stimuli but remain sensitive to others.  e.g. how you can sleep on a beach with the gentle noise of the ocean and general chatter, but are immediately awakened with the sound of a scream or sharp noise.

The Link between RAS and business Objectives

The RAS evolved to protect us from threat events (e.g. wild animal attacks, the heat of a fire, the noise of attacking tribes). It still provides a role today in a business setting to filter important and unimportant information to allow you to do work that gives you successful outcomes (i.e. activities essential for business survival).  This is a natural process and we tend to focus on work that gives us good outcomes.  However, you can actually encode the RAS with what you believe is important, like buying a Pink Beetle or setting business Objectives.

How you encode business Objectives into the RAS

There have been many books and papers (e.g. The Secret uses the RAS encoding principle without naming it) on the role of the RAS in setting and realising Objectives so this is a well trodden path in business and coaching.  Here are some tips to set business Objectives that are meaningful enough to be encoded and actively maintained:

  • Only set one to three (1-3) business Objectives for the whole organisation e.g. deliver $x million revenue by year 3, be the number one supplier within 12 months, be a 1,000 person organisation by year 5.
    • The Objectives have to be measurable so you can work out whether you are meeting them.
    • The Objectives have to be emotionally impactful i.e. there is an emotional downside by not meeting them e.g. fear, shame, anger.  There should also be emotional upside by meeting them e.g. happiness, elation, pride.
    • The Objectives can be described using audio-visual content as this helps with memory encoding and recall e.g. pictures, videos, a soundtrack.
    • The Objectives have to be believable to you.
  • Make the Objectives simple enough to remember so that you can ask anyone in the organisation and they can repeat them back for you.
  • Write down the business Objectives everywhere in the organisation e.g. posters, business cards, stickers, screen savers, an agenda item in every meeting.
  • Repeat the business Objectives in business language regularly and at least weekly.  As many politicians know repetition is crucial to encode a phrase in a populous and they know that phrase will influence their thinking.

The RAS in action

If you successfully encode the business Objectives in the RAS and follow the above, then the RAS will now filter business events based on what is important to survival defined as the business Objectives.  You won’t have to think about these actively, as the RAS is preconscious.  Work across the whole organisation will naturally be guided by the business Objectives.  If this is done correctly then we can’t help but notice the business Objectives as we conduct work and our behaviour will be moderated and influenced by those Objectives.  e.g. When faced with three different approaches to doing work, you will naturally be influenced by the option that is most closely related to achieving the Objective.  Conversely if you start to conduct work or observe work that is in conflict with the business Objectives, you enter a state of cognitive dissonance (the pain in the brain when what you see or do does not match what was expected) and you will work hard to align work to meeting business Objectives to settle the brain back down again.