Change is a Disease

© 2000 James Bach,

“That idea won’t work here, because we’re different.” is a refrain familiar to the ears of consultants everywhere. Some people respond to this defense by using evidence and argument to persuade their clients that they are not so different, really, and this new idea will work if you give it a chance. I don’t know how successful that strategy is in general, but it doesn’t work well for me. I use a different tactic: I say “you’re right, it might not work here, because you are different.” This works pretty much every time.

Oh, I don’t mean that I convince them to do what I recommend, every time. By “this works” I mean that my response helps defuse the emotional energy behind the response by honoring the fear that sustains it — the fear that they will accidentally lose their identity as an organization if they pursue certain ideas too far. It’s a legitimate fear. Sometimes companies do lose touch with what makes them unique and special. Their fear is legitimate and honorable even when it’s important that they give up an old identity and take on a new one. Identity change is like dying. That’s why Peter Pan was afraid to grow up. Few organisms want to die, even for some reward in the afterlife — or later life.

I suspect a lot of problems with the diffusion of ideas come down to problems of preserving the integrity and identity of an organization. That’s why I’ve found it useful to look at change artistry in terms of pathogens and immune systems. I’ve learned to think like a disease in order to help my clients achieve what they desire. I didn’t say it was a pleasant metaphor, but it works for me.

Avoid triggering the immune response Everyone I’m asked to help has a psychosocial immune system in addition to a biological one. If I’m going to help them, I need to avoid triggering an immune response that will engulf me and my contributions. Here are some principles I’ve learned for doing that.

Share their identity

Get to know their DNA. Immune systems specialize in telling the difference between us and them. If I pass the “us” test, I get to contribute. If I fail the “us” test, I get isolated. Sharing their identity means that I understand their culture: the rules, protocols, values, vocabulary, etc. and honor it. I clothe myself in the familiar, and offer the unfamiliar only when coated in the “protein” of the familiar. I persuade clients using with their own familiar experiences, as much as I can.

Co-opt the immune response

I’ve found it helpful to accompany my work with self-criticism and other ideas for how my client can put the brakes on at any time. This makes it easier for the client to dismiss my work, but also makes them less frightened of me and thus less likely to raise an alarm. Thus, my own efforts to carefully explain the limits and caveats of my work can serve as a sort of proxy for an organizational immune response.

Co-opt whole the immune system

Assure that the goals of the immune system are achieved, and maybe it won’t flare up. Appeal to the opinion leaders (not just managers) as people. Find out what they want and need. Give them that. Sometimes I’ve been allowed to do certain things I wanted to do because I’ve been able to guarantee that certain stakeholders get what they want.

Avoid suspicious behavior

The immune response is triggered by certain patterns (of behavior, vocabulary, etc.) and evolves sensitivity to certain pathogenic strategies. So, I avoid the common strategies. For instance, I avoid hyperbole of any kind. I avoid using anyone else’s data. I avoid quoting authorities. I avoid flashy brochures. I embrace details. If I’m speculating, I say so. If my actions don’t match my plan, I try to be the first to point that out.

Small doses at first

Small efforts, perhaps even shielded from the eyes of management, are less likely to trigger alarm. That way, a successful outcome can prepare the way for a larger one that will withstand the immune response, and an unsuccessful one may not be so noticed that it inoculates the organization against future attempts.

Educate the immune system

If the immune system considers me a helpful vitamin, they let me alone. The challenge with that is that they don’t know, starting out, whether I’m helpful or harmful. So, I use the other principles, above, to get just enough time to show results. Eventually success will cause my DNA to be absorbed into the system, and become the new status quo.

Don’t kill your host

Successful pathogens leave their hosts alive. That’s why the common cold is so common, and we don’t talk about the “common Ebola.” What this principle means to me is this: even if my idea is expelled from an organization, the experience may still provide the basis for a future success or relationship, assuming that organization is not too sick of me. Furthermore, a favorable impression left with people in that organization may sow the seeds for future work with someone else.

Sometimes I’m glad to trigger an immune response from a client, because that may be an excellent indicator that I’m not a fit for that situation. Immune systems are designed to skeptical, because skepticism happens to work well as a defense against constant organizational disintegration. If it sometimes causes a client to reject an idea that I think is good for them, well, that won’t kill me. It may cure me, though.

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