On organisational immunity to change

“For an idea that does not first seem insane, there is no hope.”

Albert Einstein

Making things happen in our communities and workplaces is difficult for a number of reasons. Behavioural economics teaches us that we are averse to loss, whether financial, status, or simply in terms of what is normal in our lives. We feel losses twice as much as we feel gains. We find it harder to let go of things that we already associate or align ourselves with, whether this is people, ideas, values, possessions, places. These emotions are pervasive whether we are at home, at work, in our community. And they are all activated when we are faced with new things. 

Something strange and inherently self-protecting can often kick in once an organisation or team gets too close to the precipice of actually doing something: organisational anti-bodies are activated and subtly move into action at speeds generally correlated with the degree of perceived threat to the status quo or existing practice. You’ll know the signs. Meetings are convened; calls for more in-depth research are made; inquiries are set up; rumours started. Strategies are deployed such as ‘play the person not the issue’. Successfully mobilised, the threat of change usually recedes, slowly sucked into the organisational quicksand which swallows up even the most enthusiastic proponent of The Idea. This is the organisational immune system in practice. It’s the enemy of creativity and innovation, the biggest challenge faced by those Henry Minzberg calls “the ‘why not’ people of the world, who keep searching for new and better ways”. 

Innovation can be defined* as the process of creating economic or social value from ideas. Coming up with new ideas is one thing; implementing them and making them happen is another. It took Ikea 15 years to move to self-assembly furniture after an employee had to take the legs off a table to fit it in their car and realised their customers must face the same problem. Sometimes the paradigm has to change, as in Henry Ford’s famous quote that if he’d asked people what they want, they’d have said faster horses. And that’s in part due to the immune system which seeks to preserve the status quo. 

Collectively and frequently deployed, these responses build up an organisational culture that things don’t really change much around here – there’s no track record of success, just a mutually reinforcing crowding out of innovation, creativity and new ideas. So here are some examples of organsiational immune system responses I’ve encountered. I’ve shown what people might say, and what they really mean… 

You just don’t understand! We tried that before and it didn’t work then eitherThat’s not my team’s area of responsibility
We should really do more researchLet’s have a task and finish group look at this in more detailWhat’s the point?
But we’ve always done it this wayDoesn’t matter, there’ll be another initiative along soonThis isn’t in my job description
No one else is doing it, why should I/we?That’s just not how we do things round hereI’m not giving up my budget / staff for that idea
Immune Response Bingo (c) Ian Burbidge

You can try this over the next couple of months: download the Corporate Immune System Bingo Card and check them off when you see them in action. 

Of course, an immune system is essential to maintain a healthy body so, as the analogy goes, it should be noted that it can have benefits for the organisation too, and these shouldn’t be forgotten. Organisational immune systems can successfully prevent crazy schemes, ensure transparency of decision-making, reduce fraud and corruption, save money, keep a focus on priorities and so on. 

There is a balance to be struck in order to foster creativity and growth that drives the organisation forwards without destroying the organisation itself, a healthy creative tension. But there is something pervasive about the antibodies listed in the table above, especially when they become the default response to change and become institutionalised in bureaucratic systems and process. And this does not enable a flexible and timely repose to an issue. 

One way of thinking about this is to ask ‘what’s the entrepreneurial response to a social issue?’ How can public sector organisations, particularly, ensure that they are able to ‘read and react’ in order to seize opportunities to leverage social change within their localities and help make them better places? Of further note is the idea that, for those trying to push the notion of what’s possible within an organisation, being constantly neutralised by the immuno-response can lead exhorably to fatalism. This fatalistic position means they either resign themselves to the fact things won’t change around here, or they just resign.  

The irony here is that if all the energy put into stopping something happening was put into supporting the action it would happen far quicker and more effectively with less pain. The key to overcoming the immuno-response is first in spotting it and then in evaluating whether it forms a valid organisational response to the proposal at hand. And if it doesn’t, then how do we overcome it? 

*This definition is taken from Goller, I. & Bessant, J. (2017) Creativity for Innovation Management. Routledge.

I also refer readers to Kegan and Lahey’s excellent book ‘Immunity to change’ published in 2009 by HBR Press.

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

2 thoughts on “On organisational immunity to change

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