Bringing the Immunity-to-Change™ process to the scientific community

By Erica Lawlor and Cheryl Vaughan

Erica Lawlor (biography)

How can scientists whose careers were formed in an incentive system that cultivates competitive and territorial behaviors be helped to meet the expectations of collaborative research frameworks? A team-based approach that transcends disciplinary boundaries may be a tall order for scientists who “grew up” in a system where funding and promotion are based upon a proven record of individual contributions to a field of research. But that is the direction in which much of science is heading.

Cheryl Vaughan (biography)

Change is hard. Human behaviors are accumulated over the lifetime of each individual. Behaviors develop unconsciously; they are the way humans respond to experiences, both positive and negative.

People are challenged to grow and change when placed into new situations or environments (ie., new job, new boss, new group, new tasks, new discipline). Not all challenges are the same; they can generally be divided into two categories: technical or adaptive.

Meeting a technical challenge is a linear process that can be addressed by checking things off a list. A problem for which the resolution seems clear and straightforward is likely to be a technical challenge. And, every time a person faces a similar problem, s/he will become faster and more adept at completing the task.

Adaptive challenges are different in almost every way. They are the New Year’s resolutions most of us can’t manage to achieve for more than the first month of every year. The path forward is unclear and often associated with anxiety and doubt. Lack of measurable progress is frustrating; people typically end up right where they started. Meeting adaptive challenges requires a transformation of the way people think, work, behave, and live, which is far easier said than done.

The challenges for scientists moving from an individual to a team-based system of research tend to be adaptive rather than technical. So is there a way to help meet those challenges?

We have tailored the Immunity-to-Change™ method for a scientific audience.

The method was developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. It is grounded in Kegan’s Constructive Development Theory, based on more than 30 years of adult development research. It is the foundation for several books and two companies: Minds at Work, and Way to Grow, Inc. The Immunity-to-Change method is currently used worldwide by leaders, managers, and executive teams to support personal and professional growth.

As trained Immunity-to-Change method facilitators who create educational programs for academic innovators, we suggest that, with buy-in from institutional leaders, the Immunity-to-Change method could become the centerpiece of professional development for faculty and promote a cultural change in how scientific collaborations are built and sustained.

How does Immunity-to-Change work?

Transformational growth is only possible when people become aware of the underlying drivers of their current behaviors. We carefully design facilitation so that each individual is responsible for identifying a self-improvement goal that has proven to be an adaptive challenge. For example, if a scientist finds it difficult to delegate tasks, their goal might be: to become better at delegating.

The scientist then continues to build their diagnostic Immunity-to-Change map by making a list of observable behaviors that work against the scientist’s goal. The list might include:

  • saying no when colleagues offer to help
  • accepting more personal work than what is feasible
  • not asking others about their skills and interests.

The list does not include reasons why the behaviors exist, it is simply a fearless inventory of what others may see happening; actions that prevent the scientist from reaching the stated goal.

The honest assessment of motivations is captured in the next step when individuals envision themselves enacting the opposite behavior. As emotional responses surface, the behavioral immune system is revealed, protective and based on personal experiences. The map helps to illuminate long-held beliefs individuals may not have been aware of and challenges them to think about how those beliefs influence or obstruct their current goals. For someone who finds better delegation to be an adaptive challenge, that might be a deep-seated belief (based on prior experience) that saying no is equivalent to incompetence, or that a chain of events may leave them looking stupid in the eyes of their boss.

The “solution” is, therefore, also experiential, and the map becomes a personal development tool.


The Immunity-to-Change method provides a step-by-step, guided process to reveal factors contributing to behaviors that stand in the way of intended goals. The big result is a new self-awareness as well as actionable, testable hypotheses. It puts participants on the pathway toward meeting their adaptive challenges for what can become meaningful, lasting change.

What has your experience been in moving towards team-based methods of conducting science? What is a goal you have that is related to conducting team-based science and may be an adaptive challenge?

To find out more:
Kegan, R. and Lahey, L. (2001). The Real Reason People Won’t Change. Harvard Business Review, November 2001.

Biography: Erica Lawlor is the Director of Education Programming with Harvard Catalyst, the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center. Her current work involves assisting in the creation of courses and educational programs for fellows and junior faculty interested in pursuing a clinical and translational research career. She has taken a particular interest in the skills necessary for individuals to engage in team-based science, including how to best relate technical material to a wide spectrum of audiences.

Biography: Cheryl Vaughan PhD currently serves as the Managing Director of the Skills Development Center for the Boston Biomedical Innovation Center, which is a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) funded innovation accelerator program. She recruits industry experts on various aspects of technology commercialization for the purpose of developing open access training and resources for post-docs, research faculty and clinicians. She is a trained facilitator of the Immunity-to-Change process for individuals and teams, and runs Managing Yourself before Managing Others (a small-group workshop that includes a biological and neuroscientific framework for the Immunity-to-Change process). Her main interests are in the design, creation, and implementation of learning opportunities that help scientists build skills for collaboration.

4 thoughts on “Bringing the <em>Immunity-to-Change</em>™ process to the scientific community”

  1. Great post! I’m very interested in your facilitation process. I will seek out the Kegan and Lakey text. Can you recommend other readings as well?


    • Thanks, Kirsten! There are several readings that relate directly to ITC as a method; I found this one particularly helpful in thinking through the role of personal/psychological development in a profession focused on novel problem-solving strategies: Putting the “Development” in Professional Development
      Helsing, Howell, Kegan, and Lahey. Harvard Educational Review Vol. 78 No. 3 Fall 2008

  2. Thank you for this great blog, I enjoyed your workshop at SciTS 2016 and got a lot out of it.
    I agree that this should be part of a professional development for faculty programme, but not sure it should be the centerpiece. I would put it at the starting point and build from it towards better communication, understanding of stakeholders’ needs, building trust, cultural awareness, and so on to more integrated teamwork. The centerpiece perhaps should be the professional wellbeing of the team itself, with development programmes built around making that happen, and Immunity-to-Change workshops being a crucial first step.


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