On societal immune systems

Societies have laws, customs and institutions to deal with those who live outside the accepted boundaries of ‘normality’ – push those boundaries and the immune response might land you in jail or on a psychiatric ward. These are often necessary, positive responses to help secure the future of the particular society. But even within society, over time, this needs to change. It’s now not ok to smoke in enclosed public spaces or to drink and drive whereas it once was. The immune response has shifted. How do these shifts occur? That remains the ongoing challenge of supporting change. 

And as individuals we are limited by our conceptions of the possible; the negative thoughts that go through our minds when confronted with something new; the establishment of habits which limit our behaviour and our flexibility; heuristics (or mental shortcuts) and biases. Coping with change involves loss – taking on board something new inevitably involves giving up the old. And so we have to overcome the endowment effect, in which we value things more when we have possession of them than when we don’t (and this goes for intangible things like ideas as much as for tangible things like money or phones). We have to overcome loss aversion, status quo bias, hindsight bias and whatever you might call the effect when we only recall the positive from the past with nostalgia.

How often are we confronted by a sudden change in circumstances which to all intents and purposes is a minor thing in the grand scheme of our lives but which for some reason we seem unable to adapt to? I get down onto the tube to come in to work and there is chaos on the Victoria line and an increasingly agitated throng of people straining to be let through the barriers. Do I join them and wait it out, hoping the issue will be resolved shortly, or do I cut my losses and head back out? Do I see the 35 minute walk to work for what it is – an opportunity to postpone a meeting and enjoy some exercise, to think clearly without distraction, to listen to a podcast that makes me think or to just watch the world as I walk through it? There is that wonderful quote about getting to the pot of gold on the other side of uncomfortable – it is perhaps our own perceptions of where our comfort zones are that holds us back the most and is our most pervasive immune response. Feel the fear and do it anyway captures the solution perfectly. 

So is it any wonder that achieving new things is difficult? Organisations, societies and communities and individuals all have an immune response. Taken together these form a pretty impenetrable defence against change, however positive. And they are not responses that operate in series or parallel, but rather they act as a web with multiple interconnections. This is where the strength of the immune defence lies. And at it heart are people, individuals who not only don’t like too much change in their own lives but then who also carry that response into the society and community in which they live and into the organisations in which they work.

Achieving outcomes is difficult, achieving change is difficult, achieving new ways of doing old things is difficult. Moreso when the immune systems are deliberately activated. Hence the phrases ‘work with the willing’ and ‘the art of the possible’. Identify those whose immune response is weakest, who are most willing to take a chance and make things happen. Unleash their power to create and who know who will come along with them. Perhaps a large-scale movement for good will emerge that secures the banning of drunk-driving, perhaps a small success will be achieved that makes people’s lives a little easier on the street in which they live.  

As David Allen says You don’t manage change, it just happens. What you manage is, as always, getting the results you want. Change challenges our skills to achieve results with new factors we may not be familiar with. There are no new abilities for managing change–there are just the basic life and work skill sets which have always been good to have, that are likely to be tested in new situations. Managing change is really about managing life, which is a dynamically flowing and shifting river anyway. Swimming and navigating are great to know all the time, because you could need them any time.

This is one of a two-part series looking at immunity to change. The other blog explores this issue in an organisational context.

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