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21 Sep '12

The General Motors Syndrome. Why good people in good organizations resist needed change in the face of incontrovertible evidence that it is needed

Posted by T.J. Addington in change, change resistance, organizational culture
As an organizational leader and consultant I see the General Motors Syndrome played out in churches, ministry organizations, missions and denominations: Those inside the organization cannot see the need for change while those outside look in and wonder why in the world good people don't see what they see - the world has changed but they have not. 

Why, for instance, did the organizational structure and culture of General Motors not change until bankruptcy when Toyota, and others where light years ahead of them in efficiency and quality? Why do even large churches resist changing antiquated structures that hinder them and no longer work for them? Why do mission organizations who have seen their entire context change but continue to operate as if they were in the pre globalized world? Why do denominations struggle with changing structures that served them 50 or 100 years ago but no longer?

The why question is even more powerful when one realizes that there is almost always demonstrable evidence that change is needed. Even in the face of that evidence, change can be hard to come by and is met by resistance. So why do good people in good organizations resist needed changes in the face of incontrovertible evidence that it is needed?

Let me suggest three key reasons.

One, organizations like families are systems that resist any changes to the status quo. It is why missional is often subverted by institutional. Institutional is comfortable while missional is a threat to the status quo of the system (organizational). In families, if one individual tries to pull away from the family system, the rest of the family applies pressure to bring them back in. That is why it is called a family "system." A perceived threat to the status quo can be met with fierce resistance that to others makes no sense but within the "system" it makes all the sense in the world. 

When I proposed major change in the mission I lead, the "system" worked to try to pressure the system back to where it had been previously which was known and comfortable. The organizational family system was threatened and wanted equilibrium again. This is why organizations find change so hard. The existing family system resists even change that outsiders think is a no brainer. 

Two: organizations, like individuals have an EQ quotient. A major part of individual EQ is the ability to know oneself, our strengths and weaknesses and how we are perceived by others. All of us have met people who lack that quality. Others see what they cannot see and to a certain extend that is true even for an individual of healthy EQ. 

Organizations are no different. What did the executives of GM think sitting up in their executive dining room surrounded by luxury as the world around them changed radically? Their corporate EQ was severely lacking. 

I once consulted with a church that had gone from 500 to 50 in a 2 million dollar facility and when I told them they were not healthy they asked what the evidence was! That is a corporate EQ issue. It is also why organizations need outside counsel when looking at significant change. Others can see what they no longer see. We become so entrenched in the system that we no longer see ourselves with any degree of objectivity. We have become the system! We no longer see objectively. 

Three, and this is less neutral than the first two. When Patrick Lencioni published his book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars they flew off the shelf, were avidly read, people saw themselves in the mirror and many of their organizations saw no change. Why? Because the politics, silos and turf wars were too strong to allow change. People do not easily give up their turf, even for good reasons. Turf and autonomy are power and they don't easily yield power. This is a spiritual issue while the first two issues are organizational system and EQ issues. 

Fifteen years ago, the team I served on, the senior team of the EFCA made a decision to give up a measure of our individual and departmental autonomy in order to get on the same page and serve the whole with greater effectiveness. There was blood on the floor in some of our initial meetings. We were tearing down silos, addressing the politics and declaring there was no more turf. Responsibility for our areas - yes. Turf - no. And our mission and the accomplishment of that mission had to take precedence over our "individual rights" and sometimes preferences.

It was a hard necessary change. So let me put it candidly. Without the humility to give something up for the sake of the whole, no organization goes to the next level. This applies to church boards where a member is guarding their sacred ministries or organizational structure, to team leaders who are more concerned about their ministry than the whole ministry, staff who are guarding their ministry portfolio or in the case of missions, individuals who want to be independent contractors rather than members of an organization and in alignment with the whole. 

This one is a heart issue. And it keeps many Christian organizations from moving forward in ways that would be far more effective and results driven.

Why do good people in good organizations resist change even in the face of incontrovertible evidence it is needed? Their organizational family system resists it, the corporate EQ of the organization may not be healthy enough to see it and people are unwilling to give up the politics, silos and turf wars. 

What does it take to see real change in change unfriendly environments. First, the family system must champion honest, candid, truthful dialogue without seeking to pressure people back into the fold. It takes courage to speak up and be a change agent when there is significant resistance to resist that change. And there will usually be loud voices in opposition.

Second it takes the willingness to face the "brutal facts" as they are, look in the mirror, listen to outside voices who do not have a vested interest and who can see with greater objectivity and be willing to count the cost of the status quo. If one waits until the organization has plateaued and gone into decline it is often too late to resurrect what could have been. Now is usually the time to face the facts rather than later. 

Third, it takes the humility to give up the parts of our autonomous nature that keep the organization from being all that it can be. It is pride and power and guard silos and turf. It is humility and missional commitment that break them down. Does it matter? It will on the day we give an account to the Lord of the church. Ironically, it often matters more to those we serve than to us who lead. They often see what we cannot see and when they do not see their leaders act, they often decide to invest their lives elsewhere.