Nothing. Nothing changes. At least nothing really important. Oh, a few cosmetic shifts. But mostly. Everything defaults back to where it was. Homeostasis rules. The “persistence of form” as Ed Friedman called it, is really, really persistent. Cynicism follows. Resistance becomes more entrenched. True transformation just got that much harder.
What does it take for the Great Idea to become embedded in the culture of the institution? Why do so many innovations get sabotaged or stunted before they could even be tried as an experiment?
This is the demoralizing frustration for so many leaders. We see ourselves as a vigorous President Kennedy laying out the challenge to put a man on the moon. We believe people will rally to the vision and eagerly sacrifice their personal goals for the higher good.
But Kennedy had far more than a good speech and a compelling vision. He was coming off a failure (the Bay of Pigs fiasco) that convinced him that he needed to take a big risk on a big idea. The Russians were already ahead of him in the space race creating a compelling sense of urgency. He also had at least some tepid support of the Congress. (Reportedly, on the way back to the White House after the now famous speech, Kennedy turned to speechwriter Ted Sorenson and said, "That didn't go over well, did it?")
And most importantly, he had NASA. He had a group of really smart, really committed, roll-up-the-sleeves-and get-it-done task masters who were ready to get to work.
As John Kotter and other gurus of deep organizational change will tells us, transformation does not just come from a big idea. Deep change is more than genius, inspiration and marketing. Transformation requires risk-taking born of urgency, aleadership ‘holding environment’ that will create enough stability and support in an organizational system to experiment with a big idea, and a “guiding coalition” or a “transformation team” ready to do the work of bringing the idea to reality.
- Without the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy wouldn’t have been willing to gamble on a risk.
- Without the Russians, there wouldn’t have been the urgency to act.
- Without even the tepid support of Congress there wouldn’t have been the resources to even try.
- But without NASA, nothing would ever have gotten off the ground.
Every architect needs both a bank to fund the project and a construction team to build it. Every visionary leader needs both a group to keep attending to the necessary work and a team to lead the transformation of the organizational culture. And while they may be one and the same in some circumstances, a great idea needs at least TWO groups of people to see it through: The Maintaining Mission Group and The Transformation Team.
The Maintaining Mission Group has to be committed to giving safety, time, space, protection and resources to the project. At first, they don’t need to actually do anything except NOT create obstacles and not sabotage the change process (a big task, in itself!). At best, they actively voice support, they keep a steady hand at the wheel and they monitor the inevitable anxiety. They provide ‘cover’ for the Transformation Team, while also caring for the organization. They make sure that the community feels ‘safe’ while a few are venturing forth.
In the church setting that I mostly work in, this is the perfect job for the Session or Board. For a non-profit this is the Board of Directors. They don’t so much have to make it happen, as ‘buy-in’ to giving the Transformation Team time to make it happen. They have to understand and ‘own’ the changes, but not necessarily give their time and energy to them. Or to shift the metaphor, they need to keep the wagon train moving even while the scouts ahead are looking for a new pass through the mountains. Eventually, this group is the most important. This is the group that will choose to institutionalize the change or not. This team protects the culture of the organization and it is the team that can single-handedly thwart
The Transformation Team is akin to what John Kotter calls a “Guiding Coalition”. This is the group of people who are going to add effort to the inspiration. They are going to actually do the work of listening, learning, attempting, and yes, failing (Do you remember how many early attempts at building rockets flamed out on the launch pad?). This team needs to be innovative and persistent, cohesive and communicative. In many situations, this is the staff executive team, but often it is not. Indeed, in church settings, I believe it is usually a mistake to assume that the church staff is going to be the Transformation Team. Transformation Teams need to be made up of both staff and lay leaders, both those who have defined roles and those with informal influence. In short, the Transformation Team must be those with the most creativity, energy, credibility and personal maturity. They must be both enthusiastic for the idea, determined to see it through, and willing to expend relational capital to bring genuine culture change. And eventually, they have to give up their power and influence so that the organization itself will embrace and institutionalize the changes.
For most leaders I know, and especially for pastors, this certainly doesn’t sound like good news. This means that most of the ways we have been taught to lead are indeed ‘doomed to fail.’ We want to believe that if we just give a good speech, then people will rise up and rally to the cause. We love the idea that a compelling vision, an inspirational goal and maybe creative YouTube video going virally on our Facebook page will bring about a new day in the life of the organization.
The skills that we have honed most (write sermons, hospital calls, counseling, teach classes) we do independently, even individualistically. When we work with a committee it is usually as a ‘moderator’ not leader. We mostly watch over processes that are more about making sure that the conversation is orderly, than courageous or creative. So most very well-intentioned, even ambitious, attempts for a Session or a Pastor to bring transformation are doomed because of a lack of capacity more than anything else. A pastor needs to speak like Kennedy, moderate the governance like a Speaker of the House and establish and lead NASA all at the same time.
The good news in the midst of all this doom and failure, is that our own Christian tradition is filled with examples of “transformation teams” that succeeded in ways far beyond most imagining (Even Jesus had a “Transformation Team” of Twelve). Our theology affirms that leadership is a shared task and the church is meant to be both a safe environment for protecting the community and a group that is willing to lay down their lives for the vision of God’s Kingdom come to earth.
For inspired ideas to take root within the culture of an institution there must be series of intentional actions. Pastors need to learn a new set of skills to go along with our abilities to preach, teach, counsel, and moderate meetings. When leaders are willing to give up the myth of the inspiring idea and instead learn to build teams of inspired action then the church will begin to see more dreams become reality.