Thursday, April 26, 2007

Drifting Along

A couple of years ago, I don't remember exactly when, I read something in a article on the 'Net that has stuck in my mind. Don't even remember how to find it now, but this is pretty close to the writer's words: "There is nothing inherently wrong with building an organization to do God's work; the problem is that, over time, building an organization to do God's work becomes an intoxicating substitute for doing God's work."

This is a profound idea. It also expresses, in a religious context, a principle that I came up with over many years that applies to almost all organizations. Since I haven't seen it expounded by anyone else, for the purposes of this blog I'll call it "Phil's Law of Institutional Drift." What is this law? "Over time, the natural tendency of institutions and organizations is to drift towards being run to suit the convenience and benefit of the staff rather than the clientele."

This principle applies to just about all human organizations. It sheds a little light on why the hospital staff will wake you up at a pre-set time--to give you a sleeping pill. It is why minor-level bueaucrats (BMV employees, IRS clerks, local government people, you name it) will sometimes convey the impression that you are an interruption to their work rather than the reason for it. Lower-level employees of large corporations are no better in this, nor are labor union leaders. All too often schools illustrate the principle too. Even religious organizations are not exempt; Francis Schaeffer once commented "One of the official titles of the Pope is 'Servant of the servants of God'--but when he is in Rome, he is carried about on the shoulders of men." (Don't mean to bash this particular church or any particular man in that office--just another example of the drift at work--Protestant denominations just haven't had as much time for the drift to work on them.)

I admit it is possible for a particular organization to resist this drift. But it takes a conscious effort, continued over time. And the larger the organization becomes, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the resistance. And the drift goes on....

2 comments:

BBNA1 said...

"Phil's Law of Institutional Drift." What is this law? "Over time, the natural tendency of institutions and organizations is to drift towards being run to suit the convenience and benefit of the staff rather than the clientele."

Addendum to Phil's Law of Institutional Drift: "the larger the organization becomes, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the resistance.

ded said...

You did more than drift into this analysis. Great insight and very true.

Further evidence of drift:
Once the organization has drifted into serving itself instead of its clientele, it will protect itself from losing its income despite the needs of its clientele.

I will never forget the discussion we had as elders when I was in an organizational church about whether or not to spend $3,000.00 on a projector that could hook to the computer to display power points etc. The logic to spend had nothing to do with whether or not the tool made us more effective meeting the needs of people. Rather, the final point to move us to write the check was that our clientele was a media savvy population who would not attend if we were not moving technologically with the times.
Of course, we believed all our decisions were based on "doing God's work" and ever increasing numbers were His will.

Funny how loss of increasing numbers would also limit our income. Did that matter to us?
No one would ever say such a thing, but I sure came to think it over time.