Lovett H. Weems says the very practices that made an organization strong can keep it from responding to new challenges in the face of “disruptive technologies.” He applies the ideas of author Clayton Christensen to Protestant Mainline churches whose best practices may not fit changing contexts.
A friend sent me a book a few years ago. It seemed a strange book for a seminary president, as I was at the time, to receive from this dedicated lay person. The book was a study of the disk drive industry, of all things. While not all of the book is useful to us in the church, I have been intrigued by possible connections with its central theme.
The author, Clayton M. Christensen, wanted to discover why good companies do not stay atop their fields when confronted by certain types of change. His interest was not why a particular company failed due to some industry or company-specific weakness. Rather, he was seeking common patterns that caused good companies to lose their leadership.
He selected the disk drive industry for study. Why disk drives? For the same reason those who study genetics study fruit flies instead of humans! A generation for a fruit fly is one day, not thirty years. The disk drive industry has gone through generations at a “fruit fly” pace. Within a relatively short time there have been multiple generations of technology and multiple leaders in the industry.
Why is it, the author asks, that the company dominant in one generation of disk drive technology is virtually never the leader in the next generation? Conventional wisdom assumes these companies have begun practicing poor management, despite years of superior management practices. How else could decline be explained?
The author found just the opposite to be the case. Indeed, even as these companies lost their positions of market strength, their operations were exemplary. They knew their customers, listened to their customers, and focused on quality and responsiveness. Decisions were made on the basis of solid business logic. In fact, decisions that led to failure commonly were made by leaders regarded as among the best in the world.
If these good companies had not become bad companies before declining, what did happen? He found that there is something about how decisions are made in successful organizations that sows the seeds of eventual failure. While traditional management is well suited to “sustaining technologies,” the tools of good management are inadequate when confronted with “disruptive technologies.” The very practices that made an organization strong can become the practices keeping it from responding adequately to new challenges.
For example, the emergence of discount stores was a “disruptive technology” for department stores. What department stores did best was meet the needs of their primary constituents. They could not, at the same time, address the competition presented by the new discount stores. Everything department stores had learned about meeting the needs of their traditional customers meant they knew little about the needs of a constituency being cultivated by a new breed of retailers.
So it was with the disk drive industry. While one company perfected the technology it had developed for their customers, another company dealt with changes in the environment by addressing a different technology or constituency. By the time the more dominant companies discover that there may really be a profitable market for the new technology, it is too late.
Meaning for Churches
What in the world could all this mean for churches? I reviewed again the cover letter that my friend had sent with the book to see if there were clues there.
My friend’s linking of this book to the dilemma of many churches made sense. He began with the situation in England out of which Methodism emerged. One church was dominant. Into the religious scene came some “disruptive technologies” from the Wesleyan Revival — field preaching, class meetings, and lay preachers, for example. The response of the dominant religious group was to ignore or ridicule these religious practices, thinking they were neither particularly legitimate nor a threat to their own constituencies. By the time it became clear that these disruptive and different approaches were going to last, a new denomination was in place to stay, no matter what other churches chose to do.
My friend’s letter then moved to the situation of the Mainline denominations in the United States. These churches were indeed America’s unofficial established church coming into the twentieth century. But things began to change. They are continuing to change.
My friend asked, “Could it be that these denominations are faced today with ‘disruptive technologies’ similar to those represented by Wesley’s movement in England centuries ago? Could it be that we in the Mainline churches are failing to see the efficacy of many of these disruptions, their lasting nature, and the new constituencies that they are reaching while we continue to operate as if nothing has changed?”
Although none of this has led me to any final conclusions, I do think my friend is on to something that all church leaders need to consider. The most dangerous time for any organization is a time of success. At such times we are unlikely to understand the reasons for our original success or the nature of our current vulnerabilities. We need to assess carefully and prayerfully our mission and our current effectiveness in achieving that mission. In so doing we may save ourselves from merely doing what seems to be right based on our past instead of doing what actually furthers God’s reign in our time.
Good practices have caused local churches to take hold and minister faithfully. Those same practices may not be adequate for today. The test that John Wesley might use is: “Are the things you are doing bearing fruit?”
For more information on Christensen’s ideas about innovation and disruptive technologies, see his online article “Six Keys to Building New Markets by Unleashing Disruptive Technologies.”
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