Disruption and Immunity

We know the human immune response to be how your body recognizes and defends itself against bacteria, viruses, and other substances that it determines to be foreign and/or harmful.

I have been doing some reading and thinking about institutional immune systems and their impact on innovation. I first heard of the concept at TEDx Toronto in  2016 from Salim Ismail. The first line of his talk caught my attention.

“If you attempt disruptive innovation in any large organization, it’s immune system will come and attack you.”

I caught him in the lobby at the break to thank him for his talk. He asked what I did and when I told him I worked in supporting innovation in education, he physically spun me around and looked at my back. He must have seen the look on my face because he followed it up with, “I was just checking for arrows.”


The premise is that every organization, company, team, etc has an immune system which (like our human version) exists to fight off foreign invaders in service of survival and often, the maintenance of the status quo. The difficulty arises when the immune response blindly destroys new ideas and disruptive people so the status quo survives. There is nothing inherently wrong with survival, but as a primary driver, it often trades relevance for resilience. I think this institutional immune system phenomenon is so difficult to beat because of the misalignment of metrics and incentives, legacy building, and a focus on overly rigid sustainability (and the fact that organizations are still made up of people). Leaders who want to leave a legacy often build systems and structures rigidly so they carry on after they are gone. Sustainability is a good thing as long as it has the agility built in to adapt – so it’s sustainagility I guess. The trouble is that markets, values and people change but many of these rigid structures are too ingrained in the corporate culture and are not agile enough to adapt to the changing context that they become irrelevant or worse destructive. Sometimes it is the misalignment of metrics or the lack of common measures that contribute to an aggressive immune system. Leaders who say they value one thing but measure another contribute to an assessment gap that can derail change. If staff are working away believing one thing is important while the leadership believes it is another, there won’t be system-wide support for new ideas from the floor. Lastly, if there are incentives in place that inadvertently discourage risk-taking, leaders will be less receptive to giving disruptions and innovations the time and resources they need to play out.

Your organization’s immune system – supporting resilience – limiting relevance.

Unless senior leaders are explicit in words and actions to the contrary, nothing will change. This idea of being open to new ideas, ways of thinking and people has to be believed and practiced from the staffroom to the boardroom. Organizations without a clear and accepted set of drivers which value disruption will treat every new idea as an invader and threat to the status quo. It’s one thing for a leader to tell staff they want them to take risks and try new things. It’s another to continue to support them when things go wrong. Not only are staff listening to hear it’s OK to take risks, they are also watching closely what happens when it doesn’t work out.

Think about how new ideas and people are treated in the organization or team in which you work. Then ask,

Does your organization execute ideas (1).png

Your answer will tell you the strength and purpose of your organization’s immune system. There are a number of factors that impact the strength of an organization’s immune response. Some enhance the response, while others suppress it.

Immuno-enhancers: These things support an immune response that attacks new ideas, disruptive people and new ways of thinking. They include; self-preservation, legacy building with rigid sustainability, fear, secrecy, siloed departments, bureaucracy, misaligned individual incentives and others.

Immuno-suppressants: These things suppress the immune response and allow new ideas and ways of thinking a chance to prove themselves. They include; clear co-created drivers and metrics, transparency, an organization-wide believe in innovation, psychological safety and agility.

People looking to disrupt the status quo and who are aware of their organization’s immune system usually choose one of two paths.

A) They build understanding and support for the disruption well before the idea is introduced. They focus on addressing the apprehension of the “keepers of the status quo” and work to modify policies and procedures to lessen the chance of rejection.
B) They strategically build grassroots support for the idea through pilots, trials and explorations. Once the idea has the will and support of the staff, the users and/or the public, it’s harder for the organization to reject it. Policies and procedures are then reworked to make the disruption possible.

Leaders who see the power of anticipation and agility know it is a preferred alternative to continuously playing defense against disruption. Fear of disruption can be crippling and is often worse than the effects of actual disruption. It’s worth stating that there is a difference between disruption and defiance. Disruption is not about defying direct instructions or open rebellion. However, having an open to learning stance and an agile mindset help us to stay relevant. The best thing about an agile mindset is that it is not tied to a budget and can’t be downsized.

Just like immune suppressants can give a transplanted kidney a chance to take hold, perhaps wrapping a disruptive idea in the core values of the mission and vision statements will give it a fighting chance?


4 thoughts on “Disruption and Immunity

  1. Great post, Pat. Sometime I wish I could slip some immonusuppresants into someone’s coffee…

    Really, though, I love the analogy. Innovators feel like invaders lots of the time, hiding from the spotlight for fear of detection. A responsive leadership can cushion the impact of colleagues or parents who are havimg difficulty understanding a change in the status quo and provide a way for trail blazers to forge ahead without having to sacrifice their own time and energy to fight these battles. At these times admin can play the role of bouncer. I can think of some great things to print on the bouncers’ t-shirts!

    1. Thanks Amy!
      We don’t often think of organizations, teams, etc as having the attributes of living things. They do. An organization’s immune response is not static as it changes over time based on its leaders’ responses to change.
      Unfortunately, I’ve seen forward thinking leaders become resistant to disruptions because they don’t feel supported (either through their experiences or the experiences of colleagues) by their supervisors or because they feel intense pressure to meet system targets.
      Reminds me of the mantra… “Get a C in Compliance and an A in Leading.”
      Compliance gets you a lot of same and good but not responsive and relevant.

    2. I’m always grateful to have you two ‘germs’ with me on this journey to make education better for kids. Large scale organizational change is one of the biggest challenges there is, for all of the reasons you mentioned in your post Pat. Time, persistence and proof of positive impacts for learning are the tools in our arsenal. Sometimes, I think the set backs are necessary for true change to take hold. You have to walk through the dark to really value what is important.

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