In 1983, General Motors tried to reinvent the car business. In the late 1980s Alan Webber and Bill Taylor tried to reinvent the Harvard Business Review. In both cases, a culture asphyxiated innovation. In GM’s case, many lost their work. This is a stone cold reality that faith communities must face as many try to innovate. The odds are that most are institutionally incapable of innovation—but many clergy will lose their jobs trying.
GM was very successful in the 1950s and 60s. But “nothing fails like success,” cultural historian Gerald Nachman wryly noted. Financial success turned GM into a left-brain culture. Left-brain cultures are good at preserving old paradigms and programs, what Clayton Christensen calls “sustaining technologies.” This is fine when organizations are hitting on all cylinders. But when they slump, as GM did in the 70s, left-brain cultures fail. In GM’s case, they tried to innovate by building several lines of cars from the same platform. The result was bland brands and equally ugly cars.
GM next launched Saturn, a five billion dollar gamble in innovation. It took seven years for the first Saturn sedan to roll off the assembly line. Too many GM dealerships viewed Saturn as competition. Corporate leadership bowed to demands and investment money was steered away from Saturn. The models went stale. Labor relations soured. Left-brain cultures are institutionally incapable of innovation. GM’s asphyxiated innovation.
The Harvard Business Review is another example. Alan Webber and Bill Taylor were editors at HBR in the 90s. When their boss took a short leave, they published innovative articles such as “Judo Economics,” “You Just Got Fired,” and dozens of other stories beyond the typical fare served in the magazine. When the boss returned, Webber and Taylor were told to return to form. They wanted to innovate and lost their jobs.
But Webber and Taylor made a pioneering pair. They created a new publication called Fast Company. A prototype was completed in 1993. The magazine was launched in 1995 with an innovative take on business. The cover declared the magazine to be the conveyer of “The New Rules of Business.” Inside were stories like “Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy,” and “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant.”
At the magazine’s tenth anniversary, Webber said that he and Taylor ultimately left HBR because the magazine just kept saying the same things over and over. “If you use the same words to describe the world, you’re sending the message that nothing’s changed. Change the language, and you change the way people think.” But language is merely a lagging cultural indicator—it does not change the game by itself. It is indicative of the way individuals and institutions see reality. The process of change requires right-brain organizations reframing reality and then developing appropriate language. Language always follows. So what does this have to do with faith communities?
There’s a great deal of research indicating that most of the innovative types and right-brain thinkers left the church a while ago. This became apparent in a 1996 survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change. They surveyed the leading segments of American society—social scientists, artists, educators, the military, athletes, politicians, media personnel, journalists, and others. Researchers found that only three groups—military, athletes, and business managers—regularly attend church anymore. For example, 46 percent of military officers and 35 percent of business managers were regular in church attendance.1 This segment is statistically significant since it represents engineering-type people mostly drawn to left-brain cultures.
The same survey shows dramatically different numbers for those drawn to right-brain cultures—media, educators, social scientists, and artists. Only four percent of those in the movie industry attend church weekly. It’s the same for television—four percent. Only nine percent in news media attend church weekly. In academia it’s 10 percent. Most of the innovative, right-brain thinkers are no longer attending church.
The challenge for faith communities is that they’re facing a precipitous drop in the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians, along with declining attendance numbers.2 More than ever, they need innovation. Since 1990, researchers at Trinity College have conducted one of the nation’s largest surveys of religion. Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent. The number saying they have “no religion” is the highest ever—15 percent.
The stone cold reality is that left-brain cultures are a liability when it comes to innovation. These cultures are not bad—they’re simply not equipped to do it. Left-brain cultures rearrange existing programs; they rarely jettison paradigms. It is similar to saying 3+2+1 is an innovative way of adding 1+2+3. The sum remains the same. No matter how well intentioned, the system doesn’t allow for true innovation.
This isn’t a rebuke; it’s reality. Over 400,000 GM jobs have been lost since the 60s. Clayton Christensen calls innovation a “disruptive technology.” It upends existing paradigms and programs. When Robert McNamara ran Ford Motor Company in the 1960s, he assumed Americans still had a Great Depression mindset. He thought they wanted mundane, reliable cars. Ford sales slid. When McNamara joined the Kennedy Administration, Lee Iacocca was promoted and immediately innovated. The 1965 Ford Mustang changed the automotive world and ignited the muscle car revolution.
The American church needs right-brain innovators who can lead it back to historic orthodoxy. But let’s not kid ourselves. In rare cases, left-brain leaders will move on (as McNamara did), opening the door for innovators. But most left-brain people won’t step aside. Instead, the right-brainers will be silenced or sent packing. Left brainers don’t realize it is impossible to squeeze the ancient “four chapter” gospel into a “two chapter” church culture. Cultures promote, permit, or prohibit innovation. That’s reality.
In his bestseller A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink says, “the future belongs to designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers—creative and empathetic right-brain thinkers” who exhibit “the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative.” In every faith community there are right-brain Iacoccas. They’ll either be promoted and play a part in upending existing paradigms, or they will lose their jobs. Since the American church is not hitting on all cylinders, her future might very well depend on promoting these right-brain thinkers.
1 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996), pp. 43-45.
1 Michelle Boorstein, “15 Percent of Americans Have No Religion: Fewer Call Themselves Christians; Nondenominational Identification Increases,” Washington Post, March 9, 2009; A04.