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

When doctors tell their patients that they will die if they don’t change their habits and behavior, only one in seven people successfully make the change. If the success rate is so low for life-and-death matters, it’s unsurprising that the change is even more challenging for situations where the stakes are not as high. Why is this so?

The core idea of the book

People make visible commitments to get better because they want to improve their current behavior, but they often have hidden competing commitments that perfectly align with and support the current behavior, turning the hidden commitments into the immunity to change. The hidden commitments usually exist because of big assumptions people take as facts.

An example from the book:

  1. Visible commitments: be more receptive to new ideas and open to delegating, be more flexible around definitions of roles and responsibilities
  2. Current behaviors: giving cut responses and not asking open-ended questions, asking others to check back too frequently, being too quick to give an opinion
  3. Hidden competing commitments: to have things done “my way,” to experience oneself as having a direct impact, to preserve the sense of oneself as the super problem solver
  4. Big assumptions: people who are labeled as builders and respected by other builders have to work directly on a product

Can the self-image, self-definition, and identity be reframed? In the example above, if you see yourself as a builder, can you work on building an organization instead of insisting on working on a product? Can the direct product work then be delegated?

Technical vs. adaptive challenges

Ronald Heifetz, a well-known authority on leadership, described the difference between technical and adaptive challenges.

Technical challenges are complicated, but a set of skills or techniques to solve them is known. Airplane pilots and surgeons are examples of experts that solve technical challenges.

Adaptive challenges are complex and ambiguous, they can change in complexity over time, and often one needs to learn a new set of skills to solve an adaptive challenge.

The technical approach to solving the immunity to change would be to directly address current behaviors, while the adaptive approach would be to find the hidden competing commitments and big assumptions and then question and test them to understand why the current behaviors are so persistent.

How people’s minds operate

The authors call out three mental complexities, three levels of how people’s minds operate. Each subsequent level is seen as an upgrade from the previous one because each level can also perform at all levels before if required.

  1. Socializing mind: Always agreeing with a group or a leader.
  2. Self-authoring mind: Saying or doing what is required so that one’s goal is reached.
  3. Self-transforming mind: Pursuing one’s goal while at the same time being able to question that goal, ask for feedback, and change that goal if required.

The self-transforming mind is needed to solve adaptive challenges like the immunity to change.

Who is best suited to overcome their immunities

The authors list three ingredients that, if present, significantly increase the chances of overcoming immunities to change. The ingredients have descriptive labels attached to them.

1) Gut
A person wants to accomplish their goal so much that it’s not an option anymore not to pursue it. The gut feeling for reaching the goal is visceral. This ingredient gives the energy to start the change—gut-level urgency.

2) Head and heart
The work must engage both thinking and feeling for the change to be sustainable. Those two are interlinked; a person can’t do it without both. If one only feels, they’ll have the energy but often go in the wrong direction; if one only thinks, they’ll know what to do but won’t have the energy to go there.

3) Hand
Mindset and behavior are interlinked; they affect each other. So this is about new behaviors and trying new actions because actions define the mindset, too, not just thinking. (this reminds me of techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Testing big assumptions is often through action.

With these three, people are better positioned to solve adaptive challenges because people are changing their behaviors AND mindsets at the same time. People can observe their thoughts and feelings and get to the stage of the self-transforming mind. Those meta-skills can be applied to other different types of challenges.

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