Making a Good Stink

Michael Metzger

Shrinking market…
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).


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  1. Here I would add the caution that probably goes without saying – but let’s say it nonetheless: that a stink does not guarantee innovation, even if innovation frequently raises a stink. . . .

    Sometimes a stink is just a stink. A rot. A mess. Decay. The sign that something has died.

    Interesting. Perhaps it’s not the innovation that’s stinking up the place . . . .

  2. I’m reasonably sure that the Skunk Works crew did not spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to suspend the Newtonian Laws of Motion but instead focused on how to make those laws work to accomplish the desired goal. Likewise, we must focus on how to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3b). Our task is not to revise the faith to make it palatable, but make the message understandable to the audience.

  3. It may be axiomatic that innovation frequently comes from the perimeter and not from the core. In the case of Christianity, it may be coming from outside the mainstream, since the mainstream is obviously shrinking.

    One difference in the “Church” and these examples, is that they are mostly big organizations under one leader–Sloan, Jobs, Johnson. The innovation in church isn’t so organized under an individual, but perhaps under a leadership of ideas.

    And the core ideas–many of which get articulated in this space–include:

    1. Articulating the Christian message in a way relevant to this period and culture
    2. Showing how the Christian story explains our experience better than alternative models
    3. Practicing our Christianity in ways that more closely follow the model of the early Christians: service, healing, boldness, caring for each other.
    4. Freeing Christianity from the confines of a religious class and putting it more into the hands of the common folk.

    I’m sure others could articulate this emerging sense of Christianity much better than I. I just hope and pray that I can be alert to the “signs of the times” and participate in bringing a vibrant practice of radical Christianity more fully into my own life.

  4. Bruce J and all,

    I highly recommend the book “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman.

    Topics including
    – Rabbinical Evangelism
    – Solomonic Soul-winning and
    – Self-discovery through dialogue

    were eye-opening to me and speak well to your 1st, 3rd, and 4th points Bruce.

  5. You should check out Stuart Kauffman’s book Reinventing the Sacred. Is it disruptive? Skunkworks material? Heretical to reductive scientists? Theists?

    It will be a conversational catalyst and/or disruption inducer for those who persevere through Kauffman’s explanation of complex systems, emergence and self-organization.

  6. Anybody familiar with an autistic child knows they are locked in their own little world seemingly happy without any understanding of who is around them depending on how severe a case they may be. In many ways we supposedly normal people are also autisitic to some extent as we interpret events in our lives only from our unique perspective & not from someone else’s. Or for example those who daydream can appear to be autistic even though it may be only for a brief period of time. Another example can be the extremely goal orientated individual who ignores all distractions even when it amy be a warning of potential danger ahead.
    Organisations be they long standing of any type such as the broad institutionalised Church, large corporates or large govt can have an institutionlised autism because they are so reliant & focussed on the systems that run them that they never review them until something goes badly wrong. Case in point the current global fiancial crisis.
    For innovation & change to occur the culture has to be open to it otherwie we would never have seen the rapid change in technology over the past few decades. The mobile phone went from being the style used by WW2 army communications to the sleek small devices we use today. Now they are becoming more multifunctional so they have increased a bit in size like the iPhone.

  7. Could be the Christian “Skunk Works” is going to be the emerging church movement. There are plenty of parts of it that smell badly.

    I had the tremendous privilege to meet Kelly Johnson at a dinner in 1985. We could use a guy like him the evangelical community.

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