Roland Hess is a System thinker, writer, trusted advisor and transformational conversationalist, who cares deeply about our future and the planet. His focus lies on corporate transformation through scaling behavioral change, understanding an organization as a “system”. He increases our awareness of our own blind spots through identifying the blocking mental models which impact our own day to day behavior. By focusing on the “joy of getting better” he inspires us to overcome these. He is founder of the think tank, which initiates large scale behavioral change within society.

Roland is one of those people who expands your thinking in every conversation you have with him. His utterly positive attitude to life and the passion he radiates for what he does is pretty infectious. His ability to scientifically explain his stories is extremely insightful.

My conversation with Roland is about transformation and the ingredients that may make transformation a joyful and positive experience. He shares with a real impressive openness one of his own transformation stories and weaves in great insights from a neuroscientific perspective. Enjoy the read!

Roland, thank you for taking the time talking to me, I have been really looking forward to this conversation. So, let’s just dive in.

What does transformation mean for you?

For me transformation means going from one stage to another. It comes from the Latin word ‘transformare’, which literally means to bring something in another form, without changing the substance. So, helping people transform is about helping them behave differently without changing their substance. They are still the same people.

Can you share a story of your own in which you have experienced a fundamental transformational shift that contributes to who you are today?

One story of a great transformation for me and my family was about me losing 12 kilos within three months. I transformed my body and transformed the way I lived and ate. It is an interesting story because it gives you a good idea how transformation in a system can work when there’s more than one person involved.

It was a couple of years ago, at the beginning of December, my boys were thirteen, fourteen years old. And they were hanging out on their Ipads all the time, which really drove me crazy. So, I made a deal with them: “if I lose four kilos until December 24th, then I get each of your IPads for a week. And if I don’t make it, we go out and you pick the restaurant. Time passed by and I realized that it was a completely stupid idea wanting to lose weight in December because you have all the Christmas parties, etc. and in addition, it’s winter, so you don’t exercise a lot. Finally, on December 24th, of the four kilos I wanted to lose, five were missing. We ended up in a well-known and really great restaurant in Vienna and my sons, my wife at the time and her daughter all ordered super expensive dishes. I realized that “my deal” really hadn’t been clever! It definitely turned out to be a lose-lose situation for me: I had not reached my weight goal and had to pay a lot of money for it.

So, I came up with a different proposal: “What if I set myself a new weight goal until April and if I make it, we all spend a week-end in a city that we would choose together.”

Now I got them curious.

“I lost the weight and we jointly did a nice trip. We all won.” I realized. “So, what about New York and 12 kilos until April?” my wife suggested. The kids were totally excited! New York, wow! I agreed. We literally signed a deal all together the same evening and they named our project “the weight losing company“: if I lose the 12 kilos we would all go together to New York for a week and if I don’t make it they would have to do things they don’t like. So, for example, one of my sons would have to iron one shirt for every kilo I managed to lose by then. Or my stepdaughter, who loved to sleep in in the morning, would have to get fresh bread from the bakery early on Saturday mornings. My life transformed totally from this point onwards. All of them were super interested and engaged to help me meet my target because they all wanted to go to New York. My son and I entered some kind of competition, we compared the number of steps we had each taken every evening. My stepdaughter started baking cakes without sugar, everybody helped me with my nutrition. They all had an interest in me reaching my weight goal and I made it. But this transformation did not just transform my life and my body. I did not just lose the weight. We grew together as a family. We approached things differently and took care of each other. And finally, we went to New York for a week where we had a great time. So, for me this was an example of a transformation on many levels, on a personal level, a family level and also on a wider level. When I told this story to a couple of people in my company and at events, people started to to experiment too as they realized how powerful it is to follow a joint target.

If you look at your story, what interconnection do you see between transformation, comfort zone, fear and vulnerability?

First of all, I felt vulnerable telling my kids that I wanted to lose weight. Literally saying that I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the way I was. You had to show aspects of your life to others which you probably wouldn’t have shared normally. But it definitely helped me to overcome the hurdle of losing nearly a kilo per week. Vulnerability means showing parts of your inner feelings, overcoming your fear and being transparent about something you deal with, about you as a human being and your struggles. Some equate vulnerability with weakness. I disagree, I think vulnerability is neither a weakness nor a strength. It simply is what it is and showing it is what makes us human!

Fear is one aspect of vulnerability because the moment you unveil yourself you don’t know how the environment will react. And this “not knowing” creates fear because it means you could be hurt.

What would be your most important recommendations on how to deal with fear in transformation processes?

First of all, it is important to understand how our brain works when we experience fear. It operates in three different modes. Either you are “in flow”, this is when you are creative and feel how everything connects to each other. Secondly there is the “fight or flight” reaction, and thirdly the phase in which you basically shut completely down, you “freeze”. All these reactions are happening in different areas of your brain. Flow and creativity are happening in your prefrontal cortex. The Amygdala in your limbic brain is responsible for the fight or flight reaction when we face a perceived danger. And then there is the very ancient reptilian brain, which is responsible for all our basic autonomous processes and where the complete shutdown happens when things are getting too overwhelming for us. When you understand these mechanisms, you are able to help people deal with their fears.

For example, you might have seen people coming on stage and the first thing they said was, “I’m really nervous. I have stage fright every time I’m in front of an audience.” There is a reason why they are voicing it. When they say this they are literally moving their thoughts from the fight or flight center to their prefrontal cortex, where the language center is located. This helps them to calm down and get more creative again. It is a fact that people are not creative but reactive when they are in a fight or flight mode. When you run away from a bear, you can’t solve complex mathematical problems.

And this finally leads to my recommendations. First of all, we need to understand that when we are going through a transformation, we are tapping into the unknown. We will be automatically afraid because that’s a natural reaction, and it’s important to understand that this is very human. Thus, creating a safe space for people to voice their fears, and where they can test and “prototype” doing things differently is key for transformation because otherwise they will go back to their old patterns and behaviors.

Secondly it is important to make clear to them what you’re up to. There are basically two ways in which you can communicate the need for transformation in organizations.

The first way is that you are “running away” from something. Very often the metaphor “this is a burning platform” is used for this, which is not something I like at all. Just think of a burning oil platform. You are standing on a platform 50m above the sea. Behind you it is burning and ahead is a jump down 50m into the sea. Not sure what you think of this but for me it is not very appealing. So, giving someone the picture of a burning platform to get moving is quite strange for me!

The second way to approach a transformation is giving people a “Towards to”. It is drawing you to something, like following the North Star. That’s a completely different energy. And there is a fantastic example for this. American doctors found out that when they told their patients that they would die within a year if they didn’t change their lifestyle, people didn’t change anything. Seven out of ten died. So, they changed their approach and asked their patients what they would do if they lived longer than a year. What they came up with were things like “playing soccer with my grandkids, travelling to places where they hadn’t been, learning something they always wanted to, ….” They described this positive future and eight out of ten survived. That makes it pretty clear, the “towards to” is a lot stronger than “away from”.

You can picture that easily: if you run away from something it will stop as soon as the danger is over. If you’re drawn to something, you keep on running until you have reached your destination. So, that’s the other key element in transformation for me, people need a compelling story, something to move towards to with positive energy.

According to your own experience, what role does resilience and self-care play in a transformation process? How do you take care of yourself?

When you are in a transformation, resilience is fundamental. When you go through a transformation including behavioral change you basically rewire your neural networks in the brain. Take my favorite example. When you fold your arms in front of your chest, and you do it without thinking, you usually always put the same arm in front of the other. Now try to fold your arms so that the other arm is in front. It’s much more difficult. Why? Because the first movement is an old standardized neural network that has been run through thousands of times already. It’s very thickly connected and the energy flows effortlessly through it. What happens when you learn a new behavior, you literally have to rewire neural connections in your brain. And that takes energy. So, whatever you transform, you need additional energy for it until it’s so optimized that it becomes effortless. Because our brain is evolutionarily designed to reduce energy consumption, this will take conscious effort and practice. Just think of the times when you started something new, such as skiing, riding a bike or learning a new language it took a lot of energy and lots of practice until it became second nature.

Now coming back to resilience. The foundation of resilience for me implies energizing yourself continuously so that even in a time where your energy consumption increases because you are in the process of neural rewiring, you have enough energy for it. Many of us think about improving our resilience in terms of going on a three-week vacation or doing “nothing” to re-energize. But that in my opinion is not the optimal solution. Resilience is about your energy balance on a daily basis. So, when you look ahead at your week, think about what in each day gives you energy and what takes energy out.

And if you find out that you have more meetings and tasks which are taking energy, my strong advice would be to either delegate one of the energy suckers or integrate something into your day which gives you energy. That’s resilience for me especially when you are leading a transformation in your organization. You have to make sure that you are re- energized in order to be resilient enough to deal with the system and navigate through these difficult times.

What re-energizes you personally?

Great conversations energize me. Being out in nature. Going for runs, meditation and being with friends. Taking time to enjoy the moment. I know what I am talking about. I used to display the same behaviors, such as carrying on working and writing emails while eating my lunch or working long hours and considering not sleeping as a strength. But it’s utter nonsense to do things like this. From a nutritional perspective you often eat useless stuff that doesn’t energize you for a long time. It gives you a quick energetical kick, but your energy falls massively afterwards, and you get tired again. The second “nonsense” is not being mindful of what you eat and how you eat, losing possibly half of the energy benefit in the process. While eating you are maybe reading something that upsets you which again sucks out more of your energy. My take on that: when you eat, you eat; when you work, you work; when you walk, you walk. Having this focus on what I do is one of the things I try to live by constantly. It’s not always possible or easy because of the many distractions we are constantly exposed to, but I am getting better at it. So, for example, if I really need to concentrate on my work, my phone is fully switched off. When I facilitate workshops, I don’t have any electronic devices on me. I’m with the group and I think people deserve this attention, because sharing our lifetime is the most valuable asset, we can give to each other.

How would you describe the essence of your work today?

I would challenge this question a bit as I don’t separate work from life. I love what I do, and I do what I love, it doesn’t feel like work to me. I’m the founder of a company, I am currently writing a book and helping people to navigate transformations on a personal, team or organizational level. So, if I put the essence of what I do in my daily life in one little sentence it’s “helping people to experience the joy of getting better”.

What is your observation on how discomfort and fear manifest in people, systems and the world?

Transformation doesn’t always have to be connected to fear and vulnerability. Let’s focus on this for a moment. Back when you were a kid, I guess you learned many things in a very playful way. And I think playfulness is something we have forgotten, that we have totally lost on our journey from being kids to being adults. What drives us is our curiosity and our willingness to try out new things. When we are trying out something new and are successful, we are experiencing that amazing feeling of joy. Why? Because the moment we succeed our brain releases wonderful chemicals that make us happy. So, if you are in a transformation the easiest way to make it work is to help people try out new things in a playful way. If you help them experiment, the likelihood they will experience this feeling in their journey is very high. This will help them and you to master the challenges you will face.

Don’t tell them to be 30 percent better, help them achieve one percent and then another percent and then another one. These little steps will feel like a success and our brain is wired to enjoy Immediate rewards. This will help them to change quicker and in a more joyful way. Then I think it can bring transformation in a very positive setting and make people want to be part of it.

You can see it in peoples’ eyes when they succeeded in something, they never thought they could do. I love to see this. For me, this is pure positive energy. And this energy is what you need to rewire your brain and sustainably change behaviors. But I think we are totally underestimating that we all love to play and test out and try things out in a playful way. We should encourage our people to do this more often by providing them a space where they can do it. And yes, we need to earn money. And yes, businesses need to be successful. All of this is correct. But putting pressure on the system to get there isn’t a sustainable solution to achieve that. Take the typical “cost cutting” example. People have to come up with “innovative and creative” ideas to get more efficient and effective. Normally cost reduction targets are set to achieve at least 20 percent or more. People have to regularly demonstrate how much they have achieved, which is the classical way to put pressure on the system. And, yes, the system will release the costs. But then, at some stage, you release the pressure on the system and the system goes back again. So, every five years you have this cost cutting cycle which is neither effective nor helpful as it’s driven by the fear instilled in people. I think it’s the opposite that makes companies thrive. By igniting the spark of wanting to continuously get better on an individual, team and organizational level, a company then doesn’t have to worry about cost cutting.

How do you ignite the spark in people to continuously want to improve?

For example, if I expect of you to improve your CrossFit exercises by 30 percent this year, you will be overwhelmed, and you will struggle to see how to succeed. But what if I made you a proposition to go on a journey and try to improve by one percent every week. Do you know where you would be after a year if you improved by one percent every week? You would be outperforming the 30 percent. It’s a completely different setting and because of the continuous improvement it feels achievable. You need the joy of getting better because the joy is positive energy, which helps rewire your brain.

There is a saying from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” And that’s what I mean, make people fall in love with what’s out there and then make them feel the joy of getting better step by step. That is and has always been my philosophy on the topic of transformation.

So what concrete recommendations would you give to people to make transformation successful?

For me – as the situations and reasons why to transform are so different – there are many ways to make a transformation successful. But two of them stand out. The first one is “create your compelling story” on why and where to head to and the second one is to “Practice what you preach”. As a leader who is navigating transformation in an organization you need to be able to share your compelling story and start first. You look at your own behavior and role model what you want to see in others. There’s no other way. If people see the joy you experience by getting better, they will follow.

What next growth step do you want for yourself?

I think my next growth step is engaging in societal change, which means engaging in politics in some way. I always kind of shied away from politically oriented groups, however I learned to accept that politics is a way of socializing decisions, which is important to create impact on a societal level.

So, if we meet again for another conversation in a year from now – in the meantime you have been super happy and satisfied with your contribution to the world – what will you tell me you did?

I would share stories about people who really inspired me, gave me energy and shared with me what they have achieved. I possibly would tell you stories about my first tries in widening my horizon toward societal change, how I started, what I learned, with whom I had discussions, how it worked, how I connected to people who knew how it works and how I learned from them. I definitely would tell you about the book I wrote, how successful it was and how much fun it was to see it growing. In fact, you would give me feedback about the TED talk I just gave. But first I think we would drink green tea and just enjoy drinking the tea.

What do you believe in?

I believe in us. I think we are wonderful beings. I believe in humanity.

What are you grateful for?

My partner, my family, my parents massively in that they gave me all these wonderful ingredients that allow me to be who I am today. My colleagues and friends who help me continuously to grow. Living in Vienna in the current times makes me very grateful. And also, that I am healthy.

What do only a few people know about you?

I think what most people don’t know about me is that I experienced the fear of death when I was 16 or 17 and that definitely transformed me as a young human being.

Your private you (characteristics, likes, dislikes…)

I think I’m a dreamer. I definitely like to play and experiment. I’m a system thinker, I have the desire to step onto the balcony and see the wider picture. I love nature. I’m into analytics, I want to understand stuff. What I dislike – a lot – is people with superficial knowledge making them seem as experts and sharing their views or “beliefs” without facts or with wrong facts. Unfortunately, the world of social media today encourages this type of people.

At the end of the day my passion is people, I love human beings. I truly love people.

Roland, it was a great pleasure to listen to your insights and stories. Thank you so much for your openness and this inspiring conversation.