Immunity to change: When rational commitments prevent innovation

There is a paradox in the field of innovation: everyone is in favor of it, I never meet a manager who explains to me that he does not want to innovate, quite the contrary; They all want to innovate. And yet in most companies, innovation is blocked. An important cause of this paradox lies in a conflict of commitment between the present and the future. Let’s look at it in more detail.

How is it that a goal shared by the whole organization is not achieved? This is the question that Immunity to Change, a book on organizational change written by two American researchers, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, examines. They provide an interesting response to the notion of conflict of commitment. Here is how it is based on a very simple example.

Sophie decides to lose weight and therefore stop eating these pasta dishes she loves so much. Unfortunately, every time she visits her family in Italy, she cracks and delays her weight loss goal to later. In other words, she has an objective, but what she does in practice goes against achieving that objective. The question is: why does she eat pasta anyway when she wants to lose weight? This behavior would typically be explained by lack of discipline, inconsistency of behavior, etc. Not at all, explain Kegan and Lahey. This is in fact a very rational behavior. In this case, Sophie is of Italian origin. She misses her country and her family visits are an important moment when her cultural and therefore emotional connection is expressed. It would be inconceivable to refuse to eat pasta in this context. She is confronted with a conflict of commitment: a commitment to lose weight, which means no longer eating pasta, and a commitment to stay in touch with her country of origin, which presupposes eating.

Which way to go?

The question is therefore, if we follow this (admittedly simplistic) example, why she thinks eating pasta is important to keep the connection with her country. This is what the authors call the worry box. She eats pasta because she is afraid that not eating them will cut her off from her home country and her family. She does so on the basis of a hypothesis, very probably implicit, that this food act is the expression of this link.

In summary: the objective, which is important for us, is not achieved because we have conflicting commitments that prevent us from achieving it and that these commitments are the result of assumptions we make about something that is equally important for us.

We see then the possible solution. In the case of Sophie, a reinforced discipline would bring no solution, only suffering and finally a renunciation. Instead, Sophie could reflect and wonder if there are no other ways to keep the link with her culture and country of origin than eating pasta. She may, for example, take an interest in Italian literature or begin to cook rather than consume.

This model can be used to understand the difficulty to innovate. At the heart of innovation is a conflict between the present and the future. An organization must ensure its present (defend its position and satisfy its customers in existing markets) and prepare its future (create future markets). Innovation requires a number of commitments, such as developing a resource-consuming project without immediate visibility into its profitability. For the record, it took Nespresso 21 years to become profitable. At the same time, ensuring the current functioning of the organization requires other commitments, such as using our resources as efficiently as possible, which is decided in budget meetings for example. But these two commitments are simply not compatible, and most often the commitment to the present prevails.

Based on the Kegan and Lahey model, the innovation problem can be summarized as follows: we want to innovate, but our day-to-day action (eg avoid wasting resources on uncertain projects) prevents innovation because we fear that the waste of resources will penalize us. As Kegan and Lahey put it, we have a foot on the gas (let’s innovate!) and the other on the brake (but don’t rock the boat!). It must be emphasized that this behavior is rational and serves the interests of the organization. It is the guarantor of its current performance. It is therefore at the level of this conflict, and therefore of the assumptions on which we base our current commitments, that we must work, rather than focus ourselves on a generic innovation imperative that only generates frustration within teams, which experience this conflict on a daily basis.

This notion of conflict of engagement was also put forward by innovation specialist Clayton Christensen at a more general level. Christensen shows that the difficulty of established companies to respond to a disruption in their environment stems from their commitment to their existing business model while the disruption calls for a new business model. The commitments required by the two models are incompatible. Again, this is not an abstract commitment: this commitment translates into concrete actions in the resource allocation process. For example, how managers define their priorities will tend to focus on the current model at the expense of the future model.

What emerges from this research, both in the conduct of change and in innovation, is that the lack of innovation is not the result of unwillingness, resistance to change or a problem of implementation, but of thousands of micro-decisions of the individual actors in everyday corporate life that finally aggregate into an unwanted result, an unintended consequence of rationality. In the search for a solution, it is therefore essential to consider what motivates these choices people make in the face of a conflict in order to be able to orient them in the direction desired by the organization.

The book “Immunity to change” on Amazon here.

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