Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009) reviewed by Steve Gladis, PhD, January 2012.
Overview: “Adapt or Become Irrelevant” should be the title of this book, although I do like the actual title: Immunity to Change by Harvard professors Kegan and Lashey. All of us have something that we wish we could change about ourselves or our teams at work. As individuals, maybe we want to be less thoughtless, lose weight, or change a habit that’s nagged us for years, like procrastinating or interrupting people. Groups or teams also get stuck in patterns of “anxiety management behavior” (immunity to change) that don’t work, such as not changing a process, a product or service when we know the world has moved on. So, we adopt a philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” even when we know “it” is no longer relevant. Building on the work of two other Harvard professors, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s theory of adaptive change, Kegan and Lahey have given us a great diagnostic tool to help us “x-ray” our own situation and test our assumptions that often lead to the exact opposite of what we say we really want to change. Their diagnostic tool is simple but elegant and composed of four steps captured in the form of four columns. Column #1: Our improvement goal (What do we want to do?); Column #2: Our fearless inventory (What are we doing or not doing instead of Column #1?); Column #3: Our hidden competing commitments (What are we secretly committed to that makes us do the stuff in Column #2, which competes directly with Column #1 desire(s)?; and, Column #4: Our assumptions (What big assumption(s) are we making that support our Column #3 hidden commitments?). To make real change happen, the authors instruct us to attack our assumptions. They suggest we conduct small, incremental experiments, collect data that runs contrary to our big assumptions, deconstruct them, and eventually clearly evaluate their accuracy and relevance. In short, we must test our assumptions for their validity. People and teams who can resist the easy temptation to just do the opposite of things in Column #2 (merely make technical, surface changes) and instead take on the adaptive changes (more comprehensive and difficult experimental changes) will find a better world to live in. This is the kind of a book that an entire company should read and practice over a year. This is a very important book—BIG stuff between these covers.