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: