Leadership Horizons: Leaders overcome entropy III

(This is the Part 3 of Henley’s Leaders Overcome Entropy series)

Entropy Stage

Entropy is the state of being in sustained orbital decay.  Entropy takes over when orbital decay goes uncorrected. 

Stephen G. Haines, in his book, The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Systems Thinking and Learning, says “(a)ll business problems conform to the laws of inertia—the longer you wait, the harder the problem is to correct.”  This applies to organizations as well, be they churches or Bible classes.  Organizational entropy, based on Haines’ definition, “is the tendency for any system to run down and eventually become inert.”

Think about the churches and groups you’ve either been part of or known about that began with a flash, grew with the speed of the expanding universe, reached dizzying heights and even stayed up there awhile, then declined and are now inert.

They fell into a state of entropy because they did not correct orbital decay, then failed also to overcome the entropy that followed inevitably.

When an organization is in entropy, I call this Condition Orange.  That’s just one step away from free-fall, which is Condition Red.

Max DePree, in New Management, lists signs indicating organizational entropy that include these:  a tendency toward superficiality, a dark tension between key people, no time for celebration and ritual, problem-makers outnumber problem-solvers, folks confuse heroes with celebrities, leaders who seek to control rather than liberate, and people speak of customers as impositions on their time rather than as opportunities to serve.

The good news is it’s not too late even when entropy seems to take over.  The action required to overcome entropy is innovation.

This is a point of real danger for leaders because many do not understand the difference between “revolution” and “innovation.”  I speak from painful experience!  Revolution is a complete renovation of vision, mission, structure and product.  To spark revolution at the entropy stage is to do too much too soon.  Revolution is too radical an action for the entropy stage, and will likely destroy the organization and abort the mission prematurely if applied at this point.

Innovation, on the other hand, is the introduction of new elements aligned with the existing vision, mission, structure and product. 

Just as Jesus’ ministry never fell into orbital decay, neither did it move into the entropy stage.  Let’s see why, and we’ll discover what a leader must do if his or her organization is in entropy:

1.      Innovation must always be based on kairos—the opportune and appropriate time.

Chronos” is Greek for the passage of time, but kairos is the Greek term signifying the opportunity that comes in chronos.  Jesus came in the “fullness of time” and all He did was never premature nor late because He waited on and prepared for the appropriate time to introduce an innovation in teaching or ministry action.

2.      Innovation must not lead the organization from its basic vision and mission.

Jesus laid out His vision and mission at the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry.  All the innovations He introduced along the way were aligned with the vision and mission that never changed.

3.      Innovation must be aimed at improving and enhancing existing styles and products.

Jesus’ “product” was a transformed life through a dynamic, intimate relationship with the Father of all life.  He wasn’t concerned with introducing a new product line, nor improving the existing one because it needed no improvement.  All the innovations He introduced were in style, to reach an expanding level of “markets” so He could touch the world itself.

4.      Innovation introduces new dimensions into an existing system.

The “system” Jesus used for accomplishing His mission and fulfilling His vision was people-based.  He used a “wheel model” consisting of a “hub” (the 12 Apostles), “spokes” (the 70 He sent out and the 120 at Pentecost) to reach the “rim” (point of impact, e.g., the 3,000 reached at Pentecost).  All Jesus’ innovations enhanced this system, but did not replace it.

Conclusion:  Don’t neglect signs of entropy.  Put together a “hub” team to focus on innovations needed to overcome the pull toward inertia and implement the innovations.

Free-Fall is the final stage of organizational entropy.  It occurs when orbital decline is not corrected.  The vehicle—whether a spacecraft, like the Russian space station (MIR), pictured here—or an organization, like a Bible study class or church, “crashes and burns.”
Jeff Hunt and others who study orbital decay in spacecraft note that as “the orbit … lowers, atmospheric drag increases.”  (Jeff Hunt, et al., Visual Satellite Observer’s Home Page)  The lower an organization drops from its “maximal orbit” of vision, purpose, mission and effectiveness, the greater will be the pull downward into disintegration.
When an organization reaches free-fall, it is in condition red.
There are several causes of free-fall:

  • Loss of energy—“Objects in high orbits merely die with their power supplies,” say Hunt and his associates.  An organization drawing its strength from the power of Christ will plunge into free-fall when it neglects or disconnects from the Holy Spirit’s energy.
  • Corruption from outside sources—“Solar cells degrade with time due to radiation exposure and damage due to debris,” continue the experts.  When a Christian organization opens its vision, heart and mind to non-biblical, unrighteous and compromising ideas and strategies, it will go into free-fall.  Just look at what is happening to “mainstream” liberal churches, which are losing members at a dizzying pace.
  • Inability to keep up with demand—“(G)enerators eventually are unable to supply sufficient power,” say the authorities of spacecraft entropy.  An organization that cannot keep pace with the demand for energy and resources will sweep into free-fall.  This is especially a problem of organizations that do not anticipate the speed of their growth and are thus under-equipped to handle rapid success.

Spacecraft in free-fall are destroyed as they enter the earth’s atmosphere.  So in organizational free-fall, the action leaders must take is “deconstruction-reconstruction.”  This requires courageous leadership.  Shutting down an organization—even one in free-fall—is extremely difficult.  Reconstructing is even harder.
Management guru Tom Peters, in Thriving On Chaos, saw that an organization in what we have here called free-fall, can actually use the terrifying situation to come out with something better.  There are five things that must be done in the midst of organizational chaos, he said: 

  • Create total customer (member) responsiveness
  • Pursue fast-paced innovation
  • Empower people
  • Love change
  • Build systems for an upside-down world

The Bible shows us people and situations in free-fall, and how they responded.  Judas represents the negative, non-productive response to free-fall.  He “deconstructs” but, because of his suicide, leaves no room for “reconstruction.”  Simon Peter, after his denial of Jesus is a better example.  He “deconstructs” through repentance (putting to death the old) and “reconstructs” by receiving the grace of Christ, and living in that new reality (putting on the new self).
Organizationally, we see a productive response when the “Jew first” strategy goes into free-fall.  God, who in His foreknowledge knew this would happen, shifts the mission of spreading the Kingdom message to the Gentiles.  The old strategy is “deconstructed” and “reconstructed” as a new one.
Leaders must remember, however, that the answer to free-fall for an organization is not reconstructing around a new vision, but bringing the old vision into a new structure.  The response to a free-falling spacecraft is not to turn the space program into a chain of women’s cosmetics shop, but to reconstruct systems and tools around the original vision.
So if a church or one of its programs or organizations is in free-fall, the goal of leaders must be first to re-connect with the original vision.  Only then can there be a design for a new ministry organization, and the negative of free-fall be turned into a positive.
Wallace Henley is a pastor, journalist, former White House aide, leadership consultant, and author of “Globequake,” among other books. He teaches Apologetics at Belhaven University and can be reached at walhenley@gmail.com.