Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey on “three fertile problems”

In Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization published by Harvard Business Press (2009), Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey identify and discuss what they characterize as “three fertile problems” that all professional development programs, personal improvement plans, leadership trainings, performance reviews, and executive coaching must overcome. They are:

1. A disjunction “between our increased understanding of the need for change and our lack of understanding as to what prevents it”;

2. A “deep-seated private pessimism about how much people really can change” that reflects a conviction that people really don’t change much (if at all) after adolescence; and

3. A lack of “a sophisticated understanding of adult development” (i.e. what it is, how it is enabled, how it is
constrained), with the result that what passes for “leadership development” will more likely amount to “leadership learning” or “leadership training.”

I wholly agree with Kegan and Lahey that leaders at any level in any organization are driving some kind of plan or agenda, but some kind of plan or agenda is also driving them. It is out of their awareness. “True development is about transforming the operating system itself, not just increasing your fund of knowledge [about it] or your behavioral repertoire.”

To the best of my knowledge, the insights that Kegan and Lahey provide in this book offer more practical value than do those in almost any other book whose author seeks to explain how individuals, work teams, and even entire organizations can understand what change is, how it is enabled, how it is constrained, how to solve various problems such as the three “fertile” troublemakers previously mentioned, and finally, how to sustain the process and the environment in which change initiatives can continue to succeed.

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