Before becoming an organization that in 20 years helped make God’s Word available to 1.3 billion in their heart language, the Seed Company (TSC) was merely an idea. Faced with the enormous task of giving access to the Bible in the heart languages of a billion more people, TSC’s culture of innovation continues to accelerate the process of bible translation, helping it to raise $20 million in support every year.
How was this culture formed? In TSC’s early years, Peter Ochs, founding chairman of TSC, gave the following talk about what it takes to become a highly adaptive organization, ready to confront a rapidly changing world.
I want to talk about something called the “learning organization.”
The diagram below is called an “S” curve. It can be the curve of an idea, a product, an organization, a person’s life… a lot of different things.
From the infancy stage you always go through a messy period. Will it work, won’t it work? How do we organize to get it done? Is somebody else doing it? Can you make it work for a reasonable price? And a lot of things die at that point; they never make it through that transition.
But those that do then start the next part of the curve. This can be a long cycle like Coca-Cola or a short cycle like a microprocessor chip. But it’s the growth and profitability and expansion of the idea, product, etc.
Then everything at some point, because it hits maturity, can do things to try to extend that cycle. But it hits maturity and ultimately it starts to decline. A lot of effort in organizations is spent on extending this curve, making the curve go more up here before it starts to top out. But ultimately it’s going to top out.
The challenge for organizations isn’t just extending the curve but rather to figure out what the next curve is, and then the next curve into successive generations of ideas or products or paradigms or forms of organizations.
This tends to be the messiest period of all as you’re transitioning from one to another; it’s not always clear what’s going to work. And there will always be many people at this point who will say, “Hey, look at how successful the old one has been. Why do this at all?” Because they’re looking backwards, they don’t know what’s coming.
Organizational theory tells you that the time to transition is… always.
Because if you wait until this starts to happen, you’re too late. Because by the time you go through this, you hit a decline… a problem.
We are going to apply that concept to types of organizations. If you go back 200 years ago, in Western society, in terms of how we used to organize to get things done, the typical organization was a craft guild.
A craft organization was marked oftentimes by one person or very small organizations who did things by hand, not mass produced. Often they were organized into guilds which set prices and stifled competition. If you could afford it, you bought it, and if not, no problem. Over time that began to change.
About 150 years ago the craft organization started to hit its decline and the manufacturing organization began to emerge. And the manufacturing organization was focused on something that was efficient, with reasonable price, with good quality and that met certain technical specifications. As time went by, very quickly the manufacturing organizations surpassed and replaced the craft organizations because it did things so much better. And those organizations tended to be hierarchical, command-and-control, and oriented toward efficiency.
There are a lot of indications in businesses today that we are going to move from a manufacturing organization to a new “S” curve – what some are calling the learning organization.
It’s still in the messy stage. People are in the process of trying to figure it out.
I will give you an example. Typically at Wal-Mart an inexpensive iron is $10. The cost of actually making the product is $1-2. An iron 20 years ago was more expensive and the manufacturing content was vastly higher. If it’s costing only a $1-2 to make it and they sell it for $10, does that mean they make $8 of profit? No, the profit margins aren’t necessarily dramatically different. Where is the cost?
The cost goes into what they call “networking.” It has gotten so extreme that at least one major American corporation, Sara Lee (the baker), doesn’t bake anything. They have out-sourced all of their manufacturing. These companies are becoming learning organizations.
The difference between a manufacturing organization is a mentality that’s focused on efficiency, production and technical standards versus a learning organization that’s focused on the customer and listening and really understanding what a person wants instead of telling them what they want.
Learning organizations are marked by being:
- Managed by values
- Very entrepreneurial and innovative
- Highly adaptive
- Having some critical skills (more on that later)
And so the Seed Company is in the process of trying to shift to a learning organization. It is really hard work because you have so many ingrained ways of doing things. You have got to get outside people in to help you think it through because you are so locked into a certain way of thinking.
What are the required skills involved in doing this? First, what marks a learning organization is an ability to handle complexity. Some would say chaos – extremely rapid change (e.g., a very fast-moving marketplace), and customer/client orientation.
Now this pertains whether we are non-profit or for-profit, whether we are a Christian or secular organization, whether we are in the U.S. or international.
One of the hallmarks is that the company has to be value-based, and value-managed. Experts in management science have found that only this kind of an organization is flexible enough to be able to respond to the changing environment.
Historically, General Motors, U.S. Steel, big American corporations had no clear statement of what their values were. And if they did, they didn’t link that into how the company was actually run.
When you move to a set of core values that guide how the company is to be run, you could move away from the centralized hierarchical way of running a company, and you can now start running it very differently.
An example of a very successful American company that made that transition is Johnson & Johnson, a multi-billion dollar company. The CEO spent 40% of all of his time talking to the people internally about the values and vision of the company. Not making decisions or having meetings or being the general of the armies. Just talking to the troops about their values. In doing that the company was so infused with these values that they could decentralize decision-making, they could change the whole way decisions got made. And make in actuality much more effective and much more rapid decisions, respond much more quickly to marketplace issues.
The great story of Johnson & Johnson is how fast they took a huge product, Tylenol, off of the shelves when cyanide (a poison) was discovered in them, and how they came out of a situation that could have been a terrible black eye on the company into an enormous gold star. Regardless of the cost (estimated at $100 million), they did whatever they had to do to make the product safe for the consumer. They already had values established that talked about the importance of those kinds of things.
You have to have a high-competence culture because it has to drive out fear at the individual level for people to be willing to perform as a team, as a partnership, to enjoy the relationships, to have the creativity, the innovation, and all the rest of that.
A high level of trust has to be growing and developing, willing to change culture. It has to be able to handle chaos or complexity comfortably and not be stymied by it— to almost embrace it.
Recognize that it’s going to be the difference between saying, “We’re going to try to manage so that we are less complex, so that chaos won’t occur.” And instead saying, “No, we know chaos is going to occur, that’s a fact of life. We are going to mange so that we know how to deal with chaos effectively when it occurs.”
The required skills are:
- Able to operate in a team-based way
- Constantly learning and committed to that in order to handle change
- Constant listening
- Able to move opportunistically
We know from Ecclesiastes that no man knows the future. So what can we do? You can prepare yourself so that when the future occurs, when the future becomes the present, you are ready to act under any circumstances.
An individual does that by developing character. Character is what you have to deal with issues as they emerge. You do it by seeping yourself in God’s word. You do it by personal disciplines.
An organization can do the same thing. They can do it by generating these same kinds of skills. As the future occurs, as things emerge, as tomorrow one country goes into revolution and all the missionaries are kicked out and another country opens up that everyone said was going to be closed for 50 years, you can react very quickly because you have already created the kind of an organization that is able to respond.
We want to be a learning organization at The Seed Company, to capture the opportunities in this rapidly changing and extremely dynamic world in which we operate.
To learn more about TSC, visit their website at: theseedcompany.org.