Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization

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In 100 Words or Less: When we know what must be done and we are genuinely motivated to achieve it; yet, we're unable to honor our commitment. What gives? The surprising answer; a competing commitment, likely rooted in subconscious assumption. Immunity to Change exposes the surprising ways in which we undermine ourselves and how we can overcome these difficult obstacles.

I rank this as easily one of the most important, life-changing books I have ever read.

  • There are fundamentally two types of changes; technical and adaptive. Technical changes may be difficult or important, but the achievement is generally straightforward insofar as the process is well-defined and understood. The routines are established and proven; recipes, in a sense.

    However, many of our most important changes may be considered “adaptive”; requiring a transformation of mindset, rather than merely the learning of new skills. Change will prove elusive when we try to tackle an adaptive problem with a technical approach.

  • “For most people greater insight, however exhilarating, is insufficient to bring about lasting change.” — Robert Kagen and Lisa Lahey

  • An “immunity to change” manifests as a personal hidden, competing commitment which sabotages our change effort. So often, we know exactly what we must do, but there are unconscious forces which actually work against us in our own minds. This works in much the same way that our immune system can mistakenly attack our body, manifesting as allergies or autoimmune disease, for example.

    Even when we are genuinely, deeply committed to an important change effort, these subconscious commitments apply the brakes, even as our conscious mind is pumping the gas pedal.

  • Progress [usually] does not unfold continuously. It’s important to remember that periods of stability and periods of change are natural in our lives.
  • “The X-ray does not peel back some insincere commitment to reveal the real one. The phenomenon we have spent the last twenty years exploring would be far less interesting and important if we were simply identifying the gap between what people say and what they mean. Change does not fail to occur because of insincerity. The heart patient is not insincere about his wish to keep living, even as he reaches for another cigarette. Change fails to occur because we mean both things. It fails to occur because we are a living contradiction.”

  • To uncover your hidden, competing commitments which sabotage your adaptive change effort, you begin by constructing an immunity map. Begin with a sheet of paper (or an Excel spreadsheet) with four columns.

    In the first column, you’ll list your Visible Commitment; the improvement you wish to make. Because we’re all biased and blind to ourselves in important ways, it helps to solicit the input of friends, family and co-workers. The authors recommend asking “what is the single thing that you think is most important for me to get better at?”

    It should be important to you and others, something which cannot readily be blamed on other people (a change that you, and you alone, are responsible t make) and something which you genuinely aspire to do. (In general, it’s more helpful to aspire to something rather than to avoid something.)

    In the second column, you’ll list the things you’re Doing or Not Doing Instead: the behaviors you wish to stop. List as many, specific behaviors as possible; don’t be concerned (yet) with why it happens or what you feel, just observe that it does happen. It’s important to regard column two behaviors as instructive; as “symptoms” of something else, rather than the thing itself.

    These first two columns are usually quite straightforward; it’s relatively easy to determine what we want to do and to observe our actions which conflict with that goal.

    The authors recommend that you solicit the help of family or co-workers to develop a complete picture of the Doing / Not Doing Instead behaviors as well.

    Next, we develop the third-column: Hidden, Competing Commitments which underlie the second column behaviors. A useful column 3 statement is obviously self-protective and, in the words of the authors, should elicit a genuinely uncomfortable feeling of “oh shit”. Be willing to spend time here; to go deep; each commitment should illuminate a second-column behavior, showing you very powerfully why anyone with this particular fear could resort to that particular behavior.

    For an executive who genuinely wishes to delegate (first column) but finds himself micromanaging his employees (second column), self-reflection may reveal that he also very much wants to remain valuable and indispensable.

    Three different people who struggle to diet may be struggling with three different hidden, competing commitments; one may want to enjoy food in social settings as an expression of friendship, another may use food to cope with boredom, and yet another may have suffered sexual abuse and be afraid to be related to sexually.

    Viewed in light of our hidden, competing commitments, we come to understand that our second-column behaviors aren’t the result of moral or intellectual failings; rather, our subconscious mind is protecting ourselves from … ourselves!

    Finally, the fourth column represents our Big Assumptions which drive the hidden, competing commitments. At first, they won’t feel like “assumptions” at all; they are held uncritically as true. (“What do you mean that I’m making an assummption? Of course this will happen.”) They may even be partially or completely true, but so long as we assume they’re true, we’re blind to the question itself, and we can’t explore their accuracy until we’ve revealed and tested them.

    For each assumption, it helps to ask yourself; when and why did this start?

    Often, as we spend time reflecting upon our third column commitments, we discover that our deepest fears — the Big Assumptions — are overblown, if they were even accurate at all. We must be willing to shift our view of these beliefs about ourselves and the world from “The Truth” to “possibly true”.

    Finally, you can challenge these assumptions with a series of progressive tests; by intentionally acting against the assumption and observing what happens and reflecting on what these lessons might teach you. The purpose of the test is not to improve; it is simply to gather information.

    Below, I share two of my recent “Immunity X-rays” that I developed after reading this book.

“A single big assumption is rarely completely and always right or wrong. The problem more often is that we tend to overuse big assumptions and overgeneralize their applicability far beyond their scope.”

My own Immunity Map: Following through

(Note that, for me, this is both a technical and an adaptive challenge. There are simple technical fixes that I can apply in order to work more efficiently, but those only take me so far. This Immunity Map explores the adaptive side.)

Visible Commitment Doing / Not Doing Instead Hidden, Competing Commitments Big Assumptions [Which Drive HCC]
I want to follow through consistently, whenever I make a commitment to others. I promise my wife that I’ll complete a task by a certain time, and don’t.

I promise a client that I’ll have a deliverable at a certain time, and don’t.

I don’t allow myself enough time to fulfill all of my commitments; I spread myself too thin.

I commit even when I don’t realistically have the time or the resources to fulfill that commitment.

I get distracted by other things, sometimes genuinely important and sometimes not.

To being “free” to do whatever I want, whenever I want.

To avoiding conflict.

To avoid disappointing people.

To seeing myself as a productive, efficient person.

If I keep these “unimportant” commitments, I won’t be “free” to do other things if and when the need or desire arises.

If I refuse to make a commitment, the other person will be angry and reject me.

If I give more realistic deadlines, the other person will be disappointed and will do business elsewhere.

My own Immunity Map: Eating healthy, nutritious food

Visible Commitment Doing / Not Doing Instead Hidden, Competing Commitments Big Assumptions [Which Drive HCC]
I want to eat more healthy, nutritious whole foods and less processed, junk food. I snack on too many processed, junk foods throughout the day.

I don’t eat enough healthy, nutritious, whole foods.

I often eat to quell anxiety or boredom.

To being “free”; in this case, to eat whatever I want, whenever I want.

To avoid feeling anxious.

“We have always told our clients that if they can make the changes they need to by recipe, by willpower, by creating some plan to extinguish certain behaviors and amplify others— like submitting to a diet— then by all means that is exactly what they should do. Nothing we have to offer is as quick and easy as a straightforward technical solution— if it works.

But in reality nearly all the people we have ever had the privilege to serve have already tried simply changing their column 2 behaviors, as any intelligent person would, and they have discovered it doesn’t work.”

My continuum of progress: Following Through

Commitment First Steps Forward Significant Progress Success
  • The immunity map represents a person’s deepest, often subconscious fears, rather than conscious, cognitive thought. It is, above all, an anxiety management system. Our hidden, competing commitments provoke behavior which is a response to different fears, many of them subconscious. It isn’t change itself, or even difficult change, that makes us uncomfortable; it’s a feeling of helplessness against “certain danger” causes anxiety. This is why it’s so important to be willing to challenge your column 4 assumptions.
  • Businesses spend billions of dollars each year on training and employee evaluations, but often with poor results, in part because they teach learning in terms of technical challenge. Too much training is devoted to merely dispensing knowledge or teaching technical skills for coping with technical challenges, rather than identifying new mindsets which are appropriate for adaptive challenges our schools, our workplace and our homes.

    Albert Einstein once said that “the formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may merely be a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.” In other words, we must first ask the right question in order to get the right answer.

  • Unlocking our immunities to change allows us to put those energies to good use. When we’re no longer pumping both the brake and the gas pedal, we’re mentally, emotionally and intellectually freer to make meaningful progress toward our most important goals.
  • Immunities to change exist within us as individuals, in small teams and even in the culture of large organizations. They are everywhere!
  • Change is always easier with the support of a team. Working together on your immunity maps with like-minded individuals will create a sense of togetherness and shared accountability. Knowing that your progress will be visible to other, important people will help.
  • Within teams, improved trust is made possible in understanding each other’s preferences, and in viewing them non-judgmentally. A Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can help team members become attuned to their preferences and to contrast them against those of their teammates. This helps us to see inevitable miscommunications as natural differences, owing to subjective needs and values, and not anyone’s “fault”.
  • The “ladder of inference” illustrates how we form beliefs about the world.

    [Drawing, at 60%]

  • Anyone can overcome an immunity to change, but it helps if you are emotionally motivated, intellectually engaged, and able to take the first step. All three — heart, head and hand — are required. Desire, insight and action are all necessary. Action without reflection is as useless as reflection without action.
  • Be willing to spend 30 or more minutes each week on your immunity to change.
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Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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