Setting Your Hair On Fire

 In Books, Business, Faith, Family, Fred's Blog, Giving, Money, Philanthropy, Teaching, Theology, Vocation

Normally, when I read pieces on the woes of church denominations I toss them into the “ain’t it awful” stack. After all, have we seen any articles lately on denominations growing or re-inventing themselves? I don’t recall seeing any of them used as illustrations in “Good To Great” or “Where Good Ideas Come From.” Just the opposite. Growing numbers of observers believe denominations are going the way of once-thriving organizations like TWA, Montgomery Ward, General Foods and RCA. Having outlived their purpose, they are institutions where ideas go to retire.

So, I was not surprised when I read the recent article in Christianity Today on the new president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, David Platt, announcing there will be a serious reduction in personnel of 600-800 positions to help make up for $210 million in overspending during the last six years. Too long a dependence on an aging donor base, combined with declining offerings from their annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, causes the IMB to be facing the classic dilemma of Joseph Schumpeter’s principle of “creative destruction” where institutions are constantly being created and then destroyed when they are deemed obsolete.

It’s beyond the scope of this blog but the changes in demography, evangelical theology, denominational loyalties and funding models are making it extremely difficult for large, bureaucratic and slow-to-change organizations to adapt quickly enough. Personnel and budget cuts are not enough. Decreasing the number of managers only changes the number of people, but it does not create a new mindset. It reduces size but does not create innovation. It will only mean fewer people working harder to maintain the status quo.

It also does not help to simply recruit younger people. This will not work unless they think differently.

The IMB sounds like IBM when Louis Gerstner, an outsider, was recruited to turn it around. His first job was changing the culture, “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game. It is the game. What does the culture reward and punish – individual achievement or team play, risk taking or consensus building? In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

While Gerstner was ultimately successful and wrote about it in his wildly popular book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, one senior executive described the transition akin to “setting your hair on fire and putting it out with a hammer.”

I am not gleeful writing about the plight of the IMB. I was raised a Southern Baptist, and there are many missionaries in our family. I teach Sunday School in a Southern Baptist church. While I am something of a bystander in all of this, I would argue that these institutions are not dying because they are bad. They are dying because they are sclerotic and have lost the ability to adapt. It’s in that spirit I would recommend the following books for David and his leadership to read and discuss. While they are, with one exception, secular business books, I think they will bring value to what he and his leadership are hoping to do with an organization that has served well. As Max DePree said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

Transitions. William Bridges’ classic on the way organizations deal with change and transition.

“Change is something that happens to people, even if they don’t agree with it. Transition, on the other hand, is internal: it’s what happens in people’s minds as they go through change. Change can happen very quickly, while transition usually occurs more slowly.”

The Change Masters by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. The book includes the “Ten Rules for Stifling Innovation.” For example, “Regard any new idea from below with suspicion – because it’s new, and because it’s from below,” and “Make decisions to reorganize or change policies in secret, and spring them on people unexpectedly.”

Wealth and Poverty by George Gilder. “It is impossible to create a system of collective regulation and safety that does not finally deaden the moral sources of the willingness to face danger and fight…The man who seeks assurance and certainty lives always in the past, which alone is sure, and his policies, despite all “progressive” rhetoric, are necessarily reactionary. The man who shapes the future must live ever in doubt and thus thrive on faith.”

The Pursuit of Prime by Ichak Adizes. Organizations experience 10 stages in their life cycle but the best place to be is Prime, where creativity and discipline are balanced. After Prime comes the stages of “Aristocracy, Recrimination, Bureaucracy and Death.”

Many denominations and their agencies are in the stage Adizes would call “Bureaucracy” where “procedure manuals thicken, paperwork abounds, and rules and policies choke innovation and creativity. Even customers—forsaken and forgotten—find they need to devise elaborate strategies to get anybody’s attention.”

Change Agent by Lyle Schaller. “The innovator is not an opponent of the old, but a proponent of the new.”

Unlike some, I do not believe the IMB is doomed, but it will take a herculean effort by men and women willing to set their hair on fire to make the transition to a healthy future.

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  • Avatar
    Jimmy Dorrell
    Reply

    Challenging thoughts once again, Fred! I share your past and concerns for both Southern Baptists and institutional challenges. Thanks for your insights! Jimmy Dorrell
    Executive Director
    Mission Waco

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Jimmy. We all have to keep being honest about the elephant in the room. Aging Boomer organizations may need to have leadership step aside or renegotiate their roles. I think about this a lot!

  • Avatar
    Fred Smith
    Reply

    Fred, another job well done. I always appreciate your insight and wisdom. What a great reminder for me as a pastor to be keeping my eyes open to the future by planning and working toward it. Thanks…

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Am I responding to Fred Smith? This feels odd, somehow. Thank you, Fred.

  • Avatar
    Lisa Wen
    Reply

    Fred, I so relate to your description, “setting your hair on fire, and putting it out with a hammer”, as it relates to organizational change and transitions. A fellow board member described a part of this process as “excruciatingly painful”. Although my experience relates to a much smaller organization/ministry, I saw this principle at work over the past several years, and am blessed now to see the organization come through the transition refined by fire, and much more effective, efficient, and fruitful for God’s Kingdom. By God’s grace and provision, (along with much prayer, being open to change, hard work, perseverence, and yes….pain), the organization can become much more fruitful after season(s) of pruning (John 15:1-2)….just wanted to offer a word of encouragement 🙂

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thanks, Lisa. It would be easy to stand off and take shots at the IMB for not being perfect or having difficulty recognizing the elephant in the room. It’s just so natural to let things slide and not keep innovating – especially as an organization grows and part of their role becomes limiting risk of the employees. There is a cascade effect.

  • Avatar
    Greg Grubb
    Reply

    Thanks, Fred, good thoughts, as usual! I’ve found Gerstner’s comment to be absolutely true, “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game. It is the game.” I think that’s close to 75% of a leader’s job; nurturing the culture.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Gregg. It’s so easy to say and so difficult to do.

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