Immunity to Change: A book review by Bob Morris

Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey
Harvard Business School Press (2009)

An adaptive approach to sustainable improvement of personal and organizational performance

There are many reasons why it is so difficult to overcome what James O’Toole aptly describes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” In my opinion, one of the most formidable barriers frequently involves a paradox: Whatever enabled an organization to prosper has become the primary cause of its current problems. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “whatever got you here may well prevent you from getting there.” No one defends failure (except as a source of potentially valuable knowledge) but many (if not most) people will vigorously defend the status quo because “it isn’t broken,” they prefer a “known devil” to an “unknown devil,” and/or because they have developed what Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey describe as an “immunity to change.”

In was in an earlier book of theirs, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work (2001), that they introduced what they describe as “a deceptively simple process – distilled and refined over many years – by which people can uncover the hidden motivations and beliefs that prevent them from making the very changes they know they should make and very much want to make” whatever the given goal may be. They have developed what Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton characterize as a “knowing-doing gap.”

As do so many other outstanding business books, this one focuses on three critically important problems that need to be solved: First, the aforementioned “knowing-doing gap” and our need to understand what it is and how to overcome it; next, “a deep-seated private pessimism about how much people really can change”; and finally, the need for a better understanding of human development (what it is, how it is enabled, how it is constrained) in order to transform the operating system itself. Kegan and Lahey identify and then explain with rigorous precision “a route to genuine development, to the qualitative expansions of mind that significant increase human capability at work – not by rehiring but by renewing existing talent.” They divide their material into three parts. First, they suggest new ways to understand the nature of change; then they demonstrate the value of their “deceptively simple process” by which achieve and then sustain improvement of individual, team, and organizational; then in Part 3, they invite their reader to complete a self-diagnosis to identify various “immunities” (at the personal, group, and organizational levels) that need to be overcome.

I was especially interested in the various devices that Kegan and Lahey provide. For example, the “X-ray” that consists of three columns on which to identify Behavior Goals (e.g. be more receptive to new ideas), Doing/Not Doing Instead behaviors that work against the goals (e.g. giving curt responses to new ideas with a “closing off,” “cutting off” tone-of-voice), and Hidden Competing Commitments (e.g. “To have things done my way!”). Throughout their book, Kegan and Lahey use this device to demonstrate how both individuals and organizations have specified desired goals, changes needed to achieve them, and “hidden” but nonetheless significant elements that could delay, if not deny, achieving the desired goals.

In Chapter Four, “Overcoming Groupwide Immunity to Change,” they introduce another column: Collective Hidden Competing Commitments. Check out Figure 4-1 on Page 90. The question raised is “Why are junior faculty in a humanities department so rarely promoted?” In the fourth column, two collective competing commitments are identified: “We are committed to not increasing our workload on advising, teaching, and committee fronts. We are committed to preserving the privileges of seniority.” Not all applications of the X-ray device need four columns. (Figure 4-5 on Page 100 doesn’t whereas Figures 4-6 and 4-7 on Pages 106 and 107 do.) Other variations on the device include a different four-column matrix such as Figure 9-1 on Page 231 that a reader can use to create her or his own immunity X-ray.

For me, some of the most valuable material is provided in Chapter Eight as Kegan and Lahey focus on three “necessary ingredients” that, for shorthand purposes, they identify as “gut,” “head and heart,” and “hand.” The extent to which a person is connected to all three will almost certainly determine the extent to which that person will be able to achieve and then sustain the significant changes that are desired. The two-pronged challenge is to establish and then sustain a tight connection with each of the three necessary ingredients, and, to then get them and sustain them in proper alignment/balance with each other. Kegan and Lahey examine each of the three ingredients, stressing the unique role of each: the “gut” functions as a vital source of motivation to “unlock” the potential for change, “head and heart” work simultaneously to engage both thinking and feeling throughout change initiatives, and the “hand” metaphor correctly suggests the importance of doing what the mind perceives and the heart yearns to be done. The authors quote Immanuel Kant’s observation that “perception without conception is blind.” In this context, I am reminded of Thomas Edison’s assertion that “vision without execution is hallucination.”

Near the end of this chapter, they list and briefly discuss what those change agents who have helped to accomplish adaptive change share in common. For example, they change both their mindset and their behavior. They are keen observers of their own thoughts, feelings, and actions to learn as much as they can from them, not only about themselves but also (and especially) about their impact on others. One of their more important, indeed compelling objectives is to create more mental and emotional “space” for themselves; that is, to create more opportunities to learn, stretch, and (yes) to fail because they realize that every so-called “failure” is a precious learning opportunity.

They take focused, bold and yet prudent risks and thereby “build on actual, rather than imagined, data about the consequences of their new actions.”(In this respect, they are “betting” on themselves.) And paradoxically, the more they experience and the more disciplined as well as enlightened they become, the greater their sense of personal freedom. They find an increasingly more numerous – and more significant – opportunities to apply what they have learned. Their new as well as their more highly developed mental capabilities can be brought to bear on other challenges, in other venues, both in their work and in their personal lives.

In the final chapter, Kegan and Lahey list seven crucial attributes of those individuals and organizations that take “a genuinely developmental stance.”(Pages 308-309) I presume to suggest that those about to read this book examine this list first, then the Introduction and twelve chapters. I think this approach will guide and inform a careful reading of the material provided.

When concluding their brilliant book, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey reassure their reader “that there is no expiration date on your ability to grow.” That said, “We wish you big leaps and safe landings.” In personal development as in climbing the world’s highest mountains, attitude determines altitude. Let the ascent begin!


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