Usually, we are grateful for our immune system. It takes care of us, keeps us healthy, and attacks exogenous viruses. This is also the case when it comes to the businesses where the immune system ensures the company’s competitiveness. It is the company’s immune system that constantly ensures that employees are loyal, and that they deliver good results. It is also the immune system that makes employees fighting fiercely for their business in order to win over their competitors and develop the best company. In short: The immune system takes care of the company.
When the immune system fails, the company loses momentum. The good employees leave the sinking ship and customers find other partners. Therefore, a strong immune system is critical to a company’s survival.
The immune system is built over many years, and has taught itself how it takes care of the company through an intricate network of ingrained habits, world view, patterns, attitudes, culture, achievements and plans. The problem is that the immune system is very bad at changing attitude and behavior. What was good yesterday is also good today and tomorrow. This way, the immune system becomes the number one enemy of change, because it perceives all changes as threats and thus attack and kill not only the bad – but also the good change initiatives. The key to successful change management is thus to either bypass or re-educate the immune system in your business.
With the entry of digitization and disruption in today’s business world, managers rarely have time to the extensive processes of change. As a leader, you often need to change the direction of the business rapidly and under pressure. There are many books about change management, but my practical and personal recommendation is that you start by promoting the heroes and start training for change.
The immune system follows the heroes in the company, so you must define new heroes also called role models in order to get the immune system on your side. Highlight employees, groups, and leaders who have the skills, attitudes, and ways of working that are right for the company’s future. And make sure not to promote the heroes of yesterday when it comes to visibility, promotion, work assignments, and salary increase. The former heroes have served their role, and if they have not joined the journey, they nourish the immune system that attacks change. The immune system follows the new heroes and help them on their way, because they are the definition of success.
Start by training small and many changes. The immune system becomes confused when the climate changes, and when the pace of change suddenly increases. Start by changing small things in the company, such as the physical environment (canteen, parking, coffee makers, wall colors etc.), and working and meeting set-up ( fixed seats, home offices, stand-up meetings, start/end on time). Start small and develop employees’ ability to respond to change. Then the immune system gets tires and receptive, when you then launch the great and pioneering change projects, which almost certainly involve extensive digitization effort, organizational change and/or process optimization.Then, the immune system picks up the new agenda in the company, thus becoming a co-player rather than an opponent. However, the immune system must not be tired for too long, since it does take care of a very important function. So be aware to give the new and improved immune system time to recover and re-establish, otherwise both the immune system, the organization and employees are worn-out. And nobody benefits from that.
Thomas Honoré is Chief Executive officer and President of Columbus.