Immunity to Change

For years I have been reading books on change theory. I have absorbed numerous process models, lifecycle diagrams and how-to formulas searching for the elusive answer to why permanent, sustainable change is so difficult. Whether we talk about individual change or large-scale organizational change, the statistics tell us that the failure rate of change is staggering.

Finally there is a book that comes very close to explaining the complexity of change and change resistance. Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey tackles change not from a strictly process perspective but more from a psychological and learning development lens.

The core premise behind Immunity to Change is that when struggling to change, one needs to unearth the “master motive” that is blocking the change efforts. I may deeply and passionately want to change my behavior, for example lose weight, but if I have deeply held beliefs about food and hunger, my efforts will be thwarted. Kegan and Lahey use an apt analogy to illustrate these competitive commitments: it is like driving a car with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. The result is no movement, no change.

The book is organized into three parts. Part one introduces the authors’ theory and methodology. They draw extensively on their decades of consulting experience to clearly describe what is fairly complex material. Change and change adaptability are looked at in correlation to mental complexity and the degree of mental complexity related to our ability to change. They further delineate between technical and adaptive change. Technical changes require skill, complex processes or procedures to execute. Adaptive changes require an actual change in mindset. Failure occurs when we attempt to change an adaptive challenge (I will lose weight) with technical means (I will reduce my daily calories). Adaptive challenges require adaptive change solutions that go beyond process change to look at the underlying mental models governing our behavior.

Part Two of the book outlines a four step process for adaptive change.

  1. Diagnose the Competing Commitment. Examine the desired change to determine the nature of the completing commitment
  2. Identify the Big Assumptions. What are the underlying beliefs, values, or assumptions that make the competing commitment viable?
  3. Question the Big Assumption. Why do you believe it to be true? How, where, and when did I adopt this belief system?
  4. Test and Replace the Big Assumption. By testing and challenging these underlying beliefs, we can re-evaluate their merit and possibly even replace them with a new perspective that more accurately reflects my current world.

Part Three serves as a self-help guide for an individual seeking to make a personal change. Kegan and Lahey walk you through each step of the adaptive change process using reflective questions, illustrations and worksheets. This section can also be used by professional coaches who are facilitating individual. Lastly, the authors wrap up with a chapter on using this process for organizational change, identifying collective assumptions used by groups to resist change.

Immunity to Change presents a cogent description of the reasons why we more often than not fail to change. It challenges us to look beyond the surface, the obvious behaviors and thoughts and to dig deeper for what is truly getting in the way. Changing underlying mental models, increasing mental complexity and improving on change adaptability are noble goals for anyone.