Balancing an organization’s immune system

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review by Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, where he compares an organization to the human immune system. Watkins introduces the idea that an organization functions much like a human in that it has a “brain”—which translates to the senior leadership team, and an “immune system”—which translates to the “body” of the organization i.e. the staff, programs, and projects that carry out the functions of the brain. Like the brain, the senior leaders are responsible for looking at the big picture derived from the environment, input, trends, and experience and it then processes that information, looking for threats and opportunities, creating strategy and disseminating information to the rest of the “body.” The immune system is responsible for the organism’s overall health, and it is required to detect any possible threats early on and send essential messages to the brain to combat any damage that might occur to the overall system.

I like this metaphor. There is a fine line between protecting an organism—or an organization—from outside threats that could damage it. It is up to both the brain and the immune system—the leaders and the rest of the organization—to be on the lookout for possible threats. What types of threats might damage an organization and how do we mitigate these threats?

On the other hand, if an organization is too protective, it can build a wall so tight that nothing can penetrate and therefore, like an overactive immune system, it can turn on itself and cause real damage. How might we guard against a highly reactive system?

How do we stay agile and balance the need for change while not tipping the organization so far over that we lose who we are and where we are going?

The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in being clear and intentional about who we are and where we are going and in constantly assessing and being vigilant about risk management.

Being intentional means looking at an organization’s culture and the several factors that comprise it—including vision, values, practices, structure, systems, and narrative—what we say about ourselves. When we are clear about these parts of ourselves, then we are clear about what projects, programs, and people to take in and to take on. We are quick to recognize when something is not a fit with who we are. And, maybe more importantly, on the other hand, we need to be able to see when a new idea, program, project, or person will challenge us, help us grow, and expand our way of thinking.

The work of leaders and the rest of the organization is balancing the risk between protecting ourselves and staying open to new ideas, trends, people, and changes. This is a deliberate conversation I continue to have with my staff, and I welcome your thinking on it as well. When is protecting the organization too much protection? And how do we know when it is time to stay open to new ideas without risking damage to the organization?

I would love to know what you think about this topic!

To see the original article by Michael Watkins, go to:



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1 Comment

  1. When is protecting the organization too much protection?

    When the organization does not adapt to new ideas vs. staying with an old idea that really does not work anymore!

    For Ex: “The brain” knows that a part of “the immune system” is sluggish, but deals with it because it still functions and it is what “the brain” is use to. That’s a signal of what may or may not predict future harm – to “the brain” and/or “the immune system”.
    It’s like – let’s wait and see.
    As Michael Watkins said: First, to be effective in being the brains of their organizations (i.e., the macro-centralized adaptive system) leaders must be good problem-finders and not merely good problem-solvers!

    If some sort of uncertainty pops in your mind and stays for quarter of a second, without you orchestrating the thought, that thing is so. Even if you don’t believe it.

    How do we know when it is time to stay open to new ideas without risking damage to the organization?

    I believe that any organization SHOULD always stay open to new ideas. Why?
    The world is changing constantly. I don’t think there are new ideas; but more like taking an original idea ( something that was there eons ago ) and change it. Develop it from ok to OH to WOW!

    For ex: Some years ago, we were only washing on scrub boards and stones to get our clothes clean. Now we have a machine that does it for us. The original idea is to get the clothes clean.
    The clothes are still being clean; but because of a thought, an idea, it’s getting clean on a more efficient level.

    On another note: There are still some places that wash on boards and stones because they have not broadened their mind to adapt to the new idea. If they only try it they will realize that the washing machine is not only a great idea, but it helps take some years off your body.

    Since “the brain” ( senior leadership ) and “the immune system” ( everyone else ) must communicate with each other constantly and I mean literally, why not organizations do this regularly? Meaning, once in a while senior leadership team and everyone else (‘ regular’ staff meet up at some sort of event / gala ) and throw ideas back and forth.

    I believe that both sides would be amazed at the person they are speaking with.

    Senior Leadership “the brain” will know or have an idea of what part of the “immune system” needs help or not


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