• Ian Sandbrook

What is your club's 'immunity to change'?

"We uncovered a phenomenon we called 'the immunity to change', a heretofore hidden dynamic that actively (and brilliantly) prevents us from changing because of its devotion to preserving our existing way of making meaning."

This quote is from Robert Kegan, the well-known Harvard researcher, who along with his colleague Lisa Lahey, formed the brilliant 'immunity to change’ theory. Basically, they became curious about what lies behind each of our habitual behaviours and mindsets. This was triggered by a study that found that when doctors told heart patients that they will die if they don't change their habits, only one in seven actually followed through successfully. So if you can't change even when faced by life or death, Kegan and Lahey concluded that desire and motivation alone can't be enough to change the status quo.

What they eventually found was that behind each of our habits is a strongly held belief that not only keeps us on that course, but also fights any change that threatens the status quo.

They found this resistance so strong that they compared it to a finely tuned immune system. Basically, each of our habits and strongly held beliefs fight any change.

Pausing to take this in and reflect on it, I think you could apply much of this logic to the current struggles of many of our sports clubs. Despite the writing on the wall, the life/death sentence many are being confronted with, they carry on blissfully protecting their status quo until it’s too late.

I first came across this concept as part of a leadership programme that I was part of. It opened my eyes to a new way of viewing my development as a leader and allowed me to unlock something that was holding me back.

The key part of the process, after identifying my immunity to change, was to formulate a test, an experiment, to challenge it in a real life situation and reflect on how I felt throughout the process and the outcome of the behavioural change. This really tested me and it was very uncomfortable at times but it did work. The process was transformational for me personally and I'm a far better person and leader for it.

After thinking about the impact of this theory for myself, it dawned on me that this could be applied in a club context as well. Therefore, one of the techniques I’m starting to introduce when working with sports clubs (or any sports organization) is to get them to reflect on what is their ‘immunity to change’ and then put in place simple, practical actions to challenge that belief or behaviour. I’m not talking about the full-blown, soul searching process that I went through on an individual level – that isn’t realistic. Rather a framework to allow safe discussion about what could be holding your club back, and then physically doing something that directly challenges that belief or behaviour.

Essentially, it’s a great way of encouraging self-reflection first, rather than our default of always looking to blame someone or something else for our failings. Often, we identify external factors as the reason why our club is struggling or why our NSO club membership stats are falling, or at a very basic level, why we can’t get more volunteers or females playing our sport. When the reality is that what is holding you back is almost always something internal. A belief, a preconception, a fear, an entrenched way of doing things. These are often the handbrakes on our progress. We all have set ways of doing things within the clubs we are involved with, and I can guarantee you there will be something in your culture, your way of doings things, that is also your immunity to change.

One of the huge strengths of this approach in a club context, is it encourages meaningful reflection and discussion by as many people as possible, about what you can improve on. It’s amazing how rarely we actually do that. Those ‘big picture’ discussions are almost always confined to a few people on a committee or a leadership group, which are often made up of people with similar backgrounds, experiences and perceptions of what you do. Therefore, opening up and having those conversations and having people contribute from outside the ‘inner circle’ is a great step forward. It may be a little uncomfortable and it needs to be facilitated well but it can be hugely beneficial.

A really simple example of this was Gala Cricket Club, whom I worked with in Scotland. They are a small club based in a small services town in a rural area. The club has a colourful and successful history but in recent years things had really stagnated, with a falling membership, tired facilities, and the same few people keeping the club going. A familiar story. However, what we facilitated was a discussion at the club with 30-40 of their members. For starters, this was the first time any of them could remember having so many people in the same room to discuss the future of the club with real meaning. They also did an online survey so people that couldn't make it could have their voices heard.

What they discovered through the process was that they weren't truly taking ownership of growing their club themselves because they felt people should just turn up to their club because cricket is a great sport. It had happened for decades before but society has changed considerably and that flow was no longer happening. And instead they were blaming external factors - national governing body, lack of cricket in schools, no cricket on free-to-air tv etc - for why it wasn't happening anymore. It was a behaviour that they defaulted to whenever something wasn't going well.

So the club were just plodding along putting out their men's team each summer with greater struggles each season to find players, and running a bit of junior stuff on the side which ebbed and flowed largely dependent on the interest of the parents of the children involved.

In identifying this 'immunity to change' we then worked with them to 'go all in' and challenge this. They developed a whole club development plan for the first time that actually gave them some purpose and structure to how they were going to become a 'community club' and broaden their reach to attract new people. It was a bit scary and a big change for them to formally commit to growing the club with only them responsible for making it happen. They picked a couple of events to deliver - a Charity Dog Walk using their beautiful ground as the location to encourage people up to the club, and a 'Tea in the Tent' hospitality event that targeted females to breakdown the perceptions of cricket and show them how welcoming they were and what they had to offer.

What started to happen is that people came to the events (over 150 people to the dog walk, and they ended up selling out two Tea in the Tent events with 150 people), they got more members out of it (16 people joined after one event alone), they made much needed income for the club (18 months after starting this process they had increase profits by 480%), they created amazing awareness and goodwill amongst the community, they unlocked new sponsors, they engaged more volunteers in helping the club because they were doing fun and exciting things, and most of all, they challenged that mindset that was prevalent at the club and demonstrated that they could successfully grow the club through broadening their reach in innovative ways. These small actions gave them the confidence to go on and deliver much more over the coming 12-18 months which truly transformed the club. The culmination of this process was that the club won the 'Ettrick and Lauderdale Club of the Award' in 2017, recognition as the best club in their local authority / council area. A great affirmation of what they were doing and for having the bravery to address the underlying issues at the club.

So while 'immunity to change' theory is based on individual development and beliefs, I see no reason why it can't be used in an organizational context as a tool to reflect on the inherent behaviours of your club, that if challenged could actually unlock some huge positives. It is a fantastic way of turning a weakness into a strength, if done well and with commitment.  

I truly believe that if you choose to tackle the big ‘elephant in the room’ belief, and challenge it successfully, it is uniquely motivating. It will galvanize your club and get you thinking about what’s possible, instead of what’s not, and it will boost your confidence to continue the positive evolution of your club.

If you want to find out more about this and other innovative sports development approaches to help your club, regional sports organization, or national sports organization, go to

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