Spreading the Virus

By | February 13, 2008

I’m reading Lean Product and Process Development which is by Allen C. Ward and was posthumously published by a number of his colleagues. It is a thought provoking read and contains this quote:

“Unless you keep spreading the virus, the immune system of the organization will reject it”
— Jim Luckman

This got me thinking about how difficult it is to implement change and the resistance an organization’s “immune system” presents to any change. As change leaders we routinely underestimate this resistance. Even when we feel there is a compelling message that speaks to the heart of why we must change (see Kotter’s Heart of Change). Most of us cling to that which is comfortable and in the absence of guidance, commitment, and persistent communication we will revert to old but comfortable behaviors. In effect, the organization attacks this interloper of change. Even when change is successful many of the new behaviors are a mutation of what was intended and may include elements of the past -this is not necessarily a bad thing.

There are examples of the human body rejecting what is considered to be an invader even though the invader may provide benefit. Organ transplants can fall into this category. The body is unaware an organ is failing or of the consequences and treats the new organism as a virus that needs to be eliminated. Similarly, an organization will resist change because it is unaware of the need and unwilling to consider the benefits of change. Organizations are different in that we can communicate the need for change. But we still must overcome the “immune system”.

A number of factors contribute to the resistance to change:

  • Fear of change – We all find comfort in our existing routines. We understand how to be successful and accomplish our goals within the current framework. Change requires us to reset our expectations and learn new techniques and tools for being successful. For some this is exciting, for others it is merely terrifying.
  • Lack of understanding – A clear picture has not been painted for the consequence of not changing nor of the benefits. A key component of creating this message is listening. A convincing argument for change cannot be created if there is a lack of understanding of the real problems impacting an organization.
  • Legacy of Behavior – I’m not sure I have the best term for this but this relates to the entrenched behaviors of an organization. Our behaviors are so ingrained that we are unable to see how we might do things differently. This often drives mutation of the original change. We end with new behaviors that are not exactly as planned. In some instances this is appropriate but sometimes we need a clean break from the past.

Introduction of new behaviors require tremendous effort. Open and honest dialog may be the biggest challenge because it requires a desire to listen and be empathetic for those undergoing change. Change requires commitment that changes are needed and those changes will be accepted and embraced.The rejective powers of the immune system are strong and patient. Change takes time, strength, honesty, persistence, and patience.

Here’s to the virus!

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3 thoughts on “Spreading the Virus

  1. Mike Cottmeyer

    I might be going out on a limb here, but I think the fear of change goes beyond comfort with the familiar, I think it is deeply personal.

    You are correct that people get comfortable and know how to be successful within their current framework. But think about what they have riding on that success: their livlihood, their ability to pay their mortgage, to feed their kids.

    I think this explains why the resistance to change is so great. The “immune system” sees the change not only as a threat to individual, but to everything that the perspon holds dear.

    To be effective leaders of change, we must try to understand what is behind the fear and help people understand that it is safe to make the change. We should spend more time with individuals to help them understand how the change will actually benefit them and make them more successful.

    This is clearly not the end of the story, I think character and ego play a part in resistance to change. See my blog post on “The Road Less Traveled By” for more on ego:


    Great post Rick!

  2. Brian Sondergaard

    The “immune system” analogy is great. Bringing about meaningful change in an organization is incredibly difficult, as so many factors collude to create intentional and unintentional barriers.

    I might add a category of resistance to your list. One of the things I’ve seen put the immune system into overdrive (thus significantly damaging change adoption) is what Kotter refers to as the “Boss Barrier”. He describes it like this:

    “Often the single biggest obstacle is a boss – an immediate manager or someone higher in the hierarchy, a first-line supervisor or an executive vice president. Subordinates see the vision and want to help, but are effectively shut down. The supervisor’s words, actions, or even subtle vibrations say ‘This change is stupid.’ The underlings, not being fools, either give up or spend an inordinate amount of time trying to maneuver around the barrier.”



  3. Rick Austin

    Mike, agree with your comments and as I noted, we have to “listen”. That requires us to understand as you say, what that person holds dear. Change may put someone into a position where they are no longer the “expert” at what they do. This represents a threat to their well being.

    As leaders of change we must recognize this and help our employees see the benefit of change to the organization. And probably more importantly, the benefit of change to the employee.

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