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!

Come visit my blog and post a comment.