organizational thinking, part 2

a couple weeks ago, i spent a half day in guatemala with the leadership of instituto evangelico america latino, a large ministry and school. we spent the first half of our time together talking about leadership and humility (see my post about it here). then, with that perspective, i wanted to get them thinking about the ongoing necessity of change.

this is stuff that has been, and continues to be, supremely helpful to me in my thinking about all organizations (churches, companies, ministries), ys included.

i started by giving an overview of adizes organizational life cycle theory. i don’t know if books have been written about this (they should be, if they haven’t been — OH, just did a search and found this). but a few years back, i found a handful of helpful articles and powerpoint presentations that shaped my thinking.

adizes life cycle.jpg

the basic gist is that all human organizations have a natural life-span to them. and they go through normal, organic, growth and aging stages, usually in the order on the chart (for descriptions of the various stages, mouse over them on adizes’ site). without intentional choices toward reinvention, any human organization will eventually die, or move into a life-support kind of existence.

for example, with businesses, it’s extremely rare to find a company that has existed for more than 100 years. or, to find a vibrant company that has existed for more than a few decades. older companies are often in the latter stages of this cycle. there are, of course, a few exceptions.

same is true for churches: it’s rare to find an older church that isn’t in the latter pre-death stages of this cycle. those few and rare older churches that are vibrant, even growing, have gone through significant re-invention along the way.

in a powerpoint presentation i found online at some point (dang — can’t find the source now!), by some church consultants, i found this slide:

congregational lifecycles.jpg

the implications, as we have wrestled with this at ys, and as i talked about it with this group of leaders in guatemala, is that organizations have a few potential routes of reinvention. the final route, nicely named “rebirth” on the slide, a quite a bit more harsh than it sounds. rebirth sounds so lovely and spiritual. but “rebirth” is actually the almost-shutting down of an organization, and the repurposing of its assets into something new and other. for a church, this could look like the giving of their building to a new church start. for a business, this could be the selling off of their assets. it might be noble stuff, but it’s not exactly the organizational future most of us hope for. and it’s only noble when considered against the other alternative: selfish or blind organizational death. there’s nothing noble about the long string of decisions that got the organization to this point.

let’s all hope the organizations we’re a part of aren’t forced to pick that route!

the middle path, which around ys we called “reboot” (“redevelopment” sounded way to corporate for us, and requires so much additional unpacking), is, in many ways, the most challenging path. but, if an organization is already past stable and into the aging process, it’s the only real path of reinvention available. when we did some serious organizational soul-searching around ys a few years back (about 6 months after yac’s death), we realized we were in this spot — somewhere between “stability”, “aristocracy”, and “early bureaucracy”. the challenge of this middle route of reboot is that the landing point on the other side of reinvention is too far from the shore of departure to clearly see. in other words (as we talked about it at ys), this path of reinvention requires launching into the murky and choppy waters of change without an absolutely clear view of the far shore. the only thing to guide the organization through this change are a set of intentionally verbalized, clarified (and reclarified), and widely held values and missional attributes. for us at ys, this involved a set of “new values” alongside some reaffirmed older values.

the shortest path of reinvention, called “redefinition” on this graphic, is the preferred route. problem is: most organizations don’t get it started in time to have the luxury of choosing it. see, this route of change actually begins just before the organization reaches stability. and embarking on significant change prior to stability is extremely counter-intuitive. that said, if an organization (or leader) is courageous enough and forward thinking enough to begin the push of change prior to stabilization, they have the opportunity to create a flywheel of change that brings ongoing change as a continuous organizational value, opening up the opportunity for a longer organizational life, influence and vibrancy.

after lots of explaining and dialogue with the leaders in guatemala, it became clear to all of us that they had recently (in the last three years) come through a very difficult time of change, best characterized by that middle path. they were once again in a growth mode, and comfortably moving toward stability. we had wonderful discussion about what it would look like for them to enter into a pattern of regular change, doing the hard pushing to start the flywheel of change.

so… i post all of this, because it’s helpful to me, and i hope for some of you.

9 thoughts on “organizational thinking, part 2”

  1. Marko,

    Thanks for posting this, man. I absolutely love to read this kind of stuff. But then to real life examples from people I know, makes it all the more exciting. Churches, I think, especially need to pay attention to this, because of their “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” approach to ministry.

  2. Marko
    This resonates with my thinking. I plan on stealing this for my next employee meeting! Thanks for your insights.

  3. Mark Oestreicher,

    Thank you for referencing Adizes and leaving a link to and the book, “Managing Corporate Lifecycles.”

    I hope your presentation in guatemala, with the leadership of instituto evangelico america latino went well.

    FYI-We have a peer learning product called TopLeaF that has been very popular within churches and other faith based organizations. If you would like more information on it or if I can be of service in any way, please feel free to contact me. [email protected]

  4. We went through the Adizes process at the church I was formally serving in ATL. Great stuff, but it doesn’t matter when nothing is implemented. Very frustrating indeed. You summarized the process very well. The book is very corporate minded but offers some good insight.

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  7. Thanks marco for your inspiration. It was great to meet up with you in Northern Ireland recently and i just ‘stumbled’ upon you blog when I googled adizezs lifecycle images.
    Going on a staff retreat today and sharing on this model and other notes you shared with us in Northern Ireland.

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