Since 2001, the only religious group that grew in every US state was people saying they had “no” religion – 15 percent of the population. Moreover, the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christians is dropping, according the same survey. GM and Xerox reacted poorly when their market share began to drop. Lockheed however made a stink when their market share was threatened – something faith communities ought to consider doing. In memory of Paul Harvey, here’s the rest of the story…
Ignore the market
In 1946, worldwide output of automobiles amounted to 3.9 million units, with the US accounting for 80 percentof the total. GM was so dominant it’s legendary chief Alfred P. Sloan boasted: “When GM sneezes, America catches cold.” GM essentially ignored Toyota and Honda as relative pipsqueaks – auto imports accounted for only 15% of US sales in 1970. “GM initially figured that the Japanese would be stuck in a niche of small cars… as customers grew out of their small car phase of life,” Joseph White writes.1
A mere 15 percent saying they have “no” religion could be easily ignored.2 Research however indicates this isn’t a phase of life, it’s a growing fact of life for younger generations.3 Forty percent of the 16–29 year-old segment of the US population no longer checks “Christian” to mark their identity. Faith communities are foolhardy to ignore it.
Debunk the data
In the early 1980s, Jim Harbour tried to show GM’s executives the efficiencies of Japanese factories. The productivity gap was startling – it so disturbed GM’s president that he barred Jim Harbour from company property. Another GM executive, Alex Mair gave detailed presentations on why Japanese cars were superior to GM’s. He set up a war room at GM’s technical center with displays showing how Honda devised low-cost, high-quality engine parts. GM debunked the data as disruptive and treated him as an adversary rather than an ally (Mair’s “war room” might have been an unfortunate metaphor).
The dilemma for innovation is that it is disruptive, writes Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen.4 The larger the institution, the stronger the resistance to innovation – innovation upends existing programs. GM was the largest at one time – so it largely lost sight of looming trends. Faith communities can lose sight of looming trends, such as the growth of “no” religion and that actual church attendance is lower than reported by Gallup Polls.5 Or they can debunk data – such as most church growth coming from people transferring from another church rather than newly coming to faith.6
Fix the model
In the 1970s, when diesel fuel was cheap, GM attempted to quickly bring an innovative diesel auto to market. But they continued to operate inside their mental model and slapped diesel parts on Oldsmobile’s 350 V-8 internal combustion engines. The head design and head bolts however were not able to withstand the higher cylinder pressures and temperatures of diesel use. This led to catastrophic failures of the engines.
Albert Einstein said you can’t fix a problem using the same equation – or mental model – that created the problem in the first place. In 1965, Xerox had a problem with its light-pens (which had been used with mainframe computers at least since 1954). They developed a “Graphic User Interface” (GUI)… but only applied it to their model – mainframe computers. In 1979, Steve Jobs toured Xerox’s Research Center and was handed a GUI. Jobs saw a mouse.7 His mental model was different – personal computers.
The equation 2+5+10 equals 17, no matter how you rearrange it. Most faith communities operate by this equation: Christians just aren’t Christian enough. We don’t think with enough worldview, don’t pray enough, don’t believe enough, and don’t act decisively enough. The results, however, keep falling short. So we reshuffle 2, 5, and 10… hoping to fix it and increase the total. What if our equation is the problem? What if we need, say, 2x5x10… equaling 100? That might solve the problem, but it would make a stink.
Make a stink
Toward the end of World War II, the German Luftwaffe owned the jet fighter market. The US military recognized the threat and commissioned Lockheed’s Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson to develop a superior jet to the Luftwaffe – in 180 days. Johnson knew he couldn’t do it inside the current programs at Lockheed. He persuaded his Lockheed bosses to let him create a top-secret department within the company. This group was free to innovate inside different – albeit disruptive – mental models. It was a “Skunk Works.”
“Skunk Works” came from the Al Capp comic strip Li’L Abner. In the comic, the “Skonk Works” was a moonshine still making “kickapoo joy juice” by grinding dead skunks and worn shoes into a vat. The original Lockheed facility was located adjacent to a stinky plastics factory, so as the secret yet smelly project got underway, an engineer referred to it as “Skonk Works.” When the comic strip complained, it was altered to “Skunk Works.”
The first Skunk Works produced a prototype of the P-80 Shooting Star with 37 days to spare. It became the US fighter of choice in the Korean War and the US became the dominant player in the fighter jet market. Ever since, Skunk Works have become the disruptive delivery system for over 1,000 new technologies, from mini steel mills to mobile phones to laptops. It’s why Lockheed Martin is still in the jet fighter business. It’s why Xerox is long gone from personal computing. It’s one reason why GM is in trouble. Yet Skunk Works could be the disruptive delivery system that faith communities use to correct market share slippage. The question is: can they stand the stink?
1 Joseph B. White, “How Detroit’s Automakers Went from Kings of the Road to Roadkill,” Imprimus, February 2009, Volume 38, Number 2.
2 The study was conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment.
3 David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons, unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
4 Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (New York, NY: HarperBusiness Essentials, 2002).
5 Bob Smietana, “Statistical Illusion,” Christianity Today, (April 2006).
6 William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001).
7 Douglas Smith & Robert Alexander, Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer (Lincoln, NE: toExcel, 1999).