Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Turning the Titanic

The Challenge of Cultural Change in an Existing Organization

If you are a leader, one of the biggest challenges you will face is the struggle to change the culture of an existing organization in order for it to remain relevant and effective in an ever-changing world. Organizations resist cultural change. Once their beliefs, practices, and language (the three components of a culture) have been established and especially if they have a past of being even marginally effective, there is the tendency to hold on to them at all costs.

Changing the culture of an existing organization is similar to trying to change the direction of a large ocean liner or tanker. Most of us know the story of the Titanic, the ship that “couldn’t be sunk.” Thanks to the movie several years back we all know that there were a myriad of things that all went wrong to come together to create the perfect situation for the sinking of the unsinkable. At least part of the issues was that the large ocean liners of that day (and even to some extent the cruise ships of today) are very difficult to turn. Changing course on such a large ship takes a lot of room, and a lot of time. These ships are not particularly nimble. Essentially the larger the ship, the harder it is to turn. The older the ship, the harder it is to turn. Also, the slower the ship is moving the slower the pace of
the turn.

Size Matters
The bigger the ship, the harder it is to turn. Small boats are nimble and able to avoid obstacles easily. Larger ships, like ocean liners or large tankers, can need as much as twenty miles of ocean to turn around. Similarly, large, established organizations, denominations, and churches take a painfully long time to change course. Inertia is an unrelenting force pushing against change so that it takes a huge amount of energy, time, and “space” to turn. Another problem is that larger organizations do not see the necessity in turning until it is too later. Like the Titanic, by the time you see the hull-destroying iceberg the only thing you can do is hold on and hope the ship holds.

Age Matters
While size matters, so does age. The older the ship, the harder it is to turn. Newer ships with more powerful engines and better engineering are much more agile than their predecessors. With omnidirectional engines they can almost pivot which allows them to more easily navigate narrow passages and tight harbors. Older ships, however, are much harder to turn and often require the assistance of tugboats in tight places and close to harbor. Older organizations are also harder to change. The culture has been well established, the practices have been done the same way for decades, and the language is entrenched in the hearts and minds of those committed to the organization. Even if the denomination, organization, or congregation seems to be shrinking a little, there is still plenty of size to remain viable. As the average age of the participant creeps up, the culture becomes more difficult to change. Even if a new, entrepreneurial leader initiates change, the moment this new “captain” lets off the throttle, the old culture immediately exerts itself and attempts to regain control. The longer the declining culture has been embraced, the less likely it is to ever change.

Speed Matters
Size matters, age matters, and speed matters. The slower the ship, the slower the turn. This seems obvious but many large, older ocean liners and tanker ships which are capable of carrying large numbers of passengers or thousands of gallons of oil, also move very slowly.  The ocean liners do not want to risk causing any discomfort to the passengers, the tankers do not want to risk the cargo shifting within its hold.

The world is changing, and slow moving organizations can’t keep up with the pace of the change that is swirling around them. When I was younger I bought my books at bookstores (gasp), now most of the “books” I purchase are downloaded onto various digital devices so that I can read them anytime, anywhere. In the neighborhood where I grew up every store and business that was there has either gone out of business or changed radically to meet the needs of the incredibly diverse population, except for the church. The church I attended looks the same, except for looking a little more tattered and worn. It not only looks the same but the same people are still there, they are the remnant of a once thriving congregation. Many of them drive more than twenty minutes to attend worship, having long sense moved out of the area. This slow moving congregation has become completely detached from the people that walk past it every day, and it has become invisible to them. In one breath they admit the need to change their culture in order to engage the community, but then indicate unwillingness to do the work to make real change happen. They are slowly plowing into the iceberg and the ship is taking on water. The band is playing, but the ship is sinking.

Cultural change is possible in a large, older, and slow moving congregation or organization, but it is hard work. More on that coming soon….until then, watch out for icebergs.

Consumed by the Call,
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