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Changing for the Better

Immunity to Change illustration

From personal goals to professional aspirations to system-level reform, the ability to change often remains maddeningly out of reach — even with all the desire and motivation in the world. Two Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty members — Professor Robert Kegan and Lecturer Lisa Lahey — have built a body of work aimed at helping adult learners and leaders overcome this innate human aversion to change, a phenomenon they call Immunity to Change.

With their Immunity to Change method, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have guided a generation of adult leaders to overcome barriers, find new solutions, and embrace the change they want to make.

Based on 30 years of adult developmental research, Immunity to Change is “a way of helping people take a kind of mental X-ray, a picture of your own mindset,” Kegan said, allowing individuals to see “the ways in which your mental system may actually be in some ways making errors or distortions that keep you from letting new ideas come into your head which in fact can allow you to change your behavior.”

For decades, Kegan and Lahey — coauthors of several books, including Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization — have shared their techniques with not only HGSE students but with thousands of education professionals around the world through courses and professional development programming.

Kegan and Lahey’s work began with the Change Leadership Group at HGSE, a national project Lahey directed, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The pair led a successful in-person program with Professional Education at HGSE and, in 2014, they were able to reach an even larger audience when they launched HGSE’s first online HarvardX course, Unlocking the Immunity to Change, reaching more than 60,000 students in its first year.

Change often fails because people focus solely on their behavior, but most efforts require both technical adaptions — changes to a person’s skill set — along with adaptive changes to a person’s mindset, Kegan and Lahey maintain. Most professional development offers only technical skill development, and that’s what sets Immunity to Change apart.

“The Immunity to Change approach is unique in that it focuses exclusively on mindset transformation for enhanced professional practice, allowing it to help participants tackle adaptive challenges,” said Lahey, who, with Kegan and HGSE faculty member Deborah Helsing, continues to provide resources through their consulting firm Minds at Work. “Mindset transformation requires overcoming blind spots, unearthing our competing commitments, and freeing ourselves of limiting assumptions.”

Immunity to Change has also helped individuals drive change in their organizations, especially schools. In 2015, Kegan and Lahey offered a 12-week online professional program for faculty and administrators from K–12 and higher education organizations to learn to enact lasting organizational change. And, just recently, they drew on the foundations of Immunity to Change to host a webinar on how people, organizations, and systems can move forward in a time of crisis. – Andrew Bauld

Learn More and Connect

Listen to an interview with Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey on the Harvard EdCast.

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