Is The End of Institutions Acceptible?

At lunch the other day with the head of a local organization, we discussed why many traditional institutions are failing to sustain interest.  He laid the cause on the disenchantment of Baby Boomers in traditional institutions, like the church. His point to me was that the Greatest Generation, the parents of the Boomers, had created institutions that commanded allegiance to the institution, rather than to the mission that gave purpose to the institution. I think he is correct, but wrong in his assumption that these institutions have proven to be not worth investing in.  It is too easy to write them off because the current leadership is pathetic.

Legacy institutions, those that have been around for more than a generation, like churches, schools, political institutions, families and many businesses, are challenged to justify their continued existence. There is a faction within the Boomer generation that has rejected these institutions as relics of a past time that is no longer valid.

Here's the problem as I see it. And I see that as a reluctant member of the Baby Boomer generation.

Nothing lasts without some organizational structure. The creation  of a sustainable organization requires a tremendous amount of energy, resources, and commitment. What I've learned over the years of dealing with institutions is that people are fickle and selfish. Don't get me wrong. I'm not making a cynical, negative, defeatist judgment here. No, I'm making an observation of what I see where people think that they can sustain good work on emotion and good intentions. 

The lowest common denominator that unites all human beings is our inherent selfishness, denial of responsibility and lack of courage to change the things we know need it.

Boomers have abandoned institutions partly because we were never equipped to lead. The Greatest Generation, for all their strengths of character in the past, failed to understand that the perpetuation of their institutions was dependent on the development of leadership in younger generations. It didn't happen because they held on to the reins of power, and still do in many cases. All they knew was institution building, and how do you do that when you retire? So, you hang on, tell you sons and daughters what they can and can't do with their business, church, club or family.

As a result, Boomers are bailing out of traditional institutions, looking for ones that cater to their personal interests. You only have to look as far as your neighborhood Megachurch to see that it is filled with people in their 40's and 50's. Visit your local traditional mainstream church, and you find people in their 60's, 70's and 80's.  In my consulting practice, I've had client churches ask if they should abandon hope for attracting young families, those in their 20's and 30's, and focus exclusively on their elderly population.

For a business, this is less an issue if your products and services are universally needed, like food or shelter. But if you business requires past customers' loyalty to the business in order to make it, then you are in trouble.  You can't assume that what once was a dependable stream of customers will always be so.

What this leads me to realize is that Baby Boomers have set in motion a pattern of abandonment that will come back to haunt us. Because we have abandoned institutions for the quick and easy consumer fix, we have loss the relationship to the institution that would be there for us when we needed them.

Institutions die because they fail to grow through the stages of organizational life. At the heart of this life are three concepts that are important for sustaining a vital institutional life. Forget about these, and the institution becomes an end in itself. Revitalize these ideas and the institution begins to grow again.

Every institution lives or dies by its mission, a set of values and a vision for the future.  Missionvaluesvisionideasthatconne_2
An organizational Mission is simply the purpose or reason for its existence. It is an identity statement. It states what the institution does.   It provides a basis for understanding what kind of organizational structure is needed.  Organizational structure follows Mission, not vice-versa. This is why so many Boomers have abandoned institutions. The institutions lost touch with their mission, their reason for being, and the institution devolves into a self-perpetuating institution.

The principal challenge for many traditional organizations is to revision their mission within the same organizational structure. It takes courage to change, and changing the structure is essential if your declining institution hopes to survive.

Values are those ideas that unite the institution's members or supporters around the mission of the organization. These values are ones that give people the reason to make commitments to the organization.  (Jim Collins and his co-author Jerry Porras, do great work in describing what these values are and their function in their book, Built To Last. I highly recommend it.) Values are therefore the glue to the relationships of an organization. Values are the ideas that create loyal customers.  I've written about the place of values here and here.

A Vision for the Future is simply the recognition of the impact that people can have through the organization.  It is where the Values of the organization are linked to the Mission of the organization. A Vision is not simply the impact, but impact within and through the context of this particular organization.  By impact, I mean what changes, what difference do these people working through this organizational structure make?
The failure of my generation to understand the value of institutions is that many of the great ideas and passion that they have for making a difference is lost to the lack of sufficient structure. As a result, our worthy projects become just as self-serving as an older generation's self-perpetuating institutions have become. 

At the heart of every successful organization, of every institution that has developed sustainable value from generation to generation is a vital interaction between the three dimensions that every leader must address - Ideas, Relationships and Organizational Structure.  The Mission, Values and Vision of an organization connect these distinctive areas of focus together.

Ideas are the conceptualization of the organization from its Mission, Values and Vision to all aspects of communication and descriptions of policies, processes, and plans.  The measure of ideas is not just clarity, but relevance and applicability.  Ideas are knowledge and information and these are increasingly the most valuable asset an organization has.

Relationships include all the human interaction that takes place within and without the organization. The stronger the values that greater sense of belonging, the stronger the bond that people have to the mission of the organization. Relationships and values are often treated as a secondary consideration because they are more difficult to quantify. This is because their complexity is much greater than the structural complexity that exists. And yet, they are treated as insignificant because they don't produce hard numbers.  The reality is that relationships are mostly likely the determining factor in why an organization can sustain success over time. Relationships feed the idea generation and communication functions, and are the vehicle for the work of most organizational structures. Ultimately, business live and die by how well they function in their relationships.

Organizational structure is the mechanism by which an institutional mission is organized. Structure follows mission as form follows function in architecture.  This is where Boomers have failed to understand the nature of organizations.  There is a great push from Boomers and younger generations for community instead of  institutions. But what is community, but healthy relationships functioning in an environment of purpose. If there is no structure to that community, then community is left to the vagaries of human fickleness. In other words, my commitment to community, whether it is a church community, or a local business or my employer is not based on the vision of our mission's impact, but on whether my needs have been met.

An organizational structure has four aspects - Governance, Program or Services, Operations and Resources.  Each is essential to the fulfillment of mission.  A communal structure has these same dimensions. A community isn't simply a group of people gathered around a common idea.  A community needs governance to manage accountability to the values and purpose of the community. Even if a community's purpose is to satisfy the needs of the members, there must be a program or service that accomplishes this goal.  In order for a program to be conducted, logistics and support must be provided in order for it to happen. And finally, every human endeavor requires financial resources in order to function.

In the end, there is no abandoning of institutions for community. There is only the abandoning of responsibility. When I give up responsibility, I look to others to meet my needs, to resolve problems and be the reason for problems in the world. We become self-perpetuating selfish beings who will find it very difficult to function in a healthy community.

Of course, if an institution is healthy, functioning well in all three dimension, then it can be a place of redemption and change for the individual. However, for that to happen, the individual must accept responsibility, not only for their own beliefs and actions, but also for the welfare of the institution.

Lastly, from my perspective, the issue isn't whether the institution is worth saving, but rather is the mission worth investing in. And then, does the current organizational structure support that mission. If it doesn't then change it.

Change it. Don't abandon it. Change it radically. Change it just a little, but change it.

If you don't, then you are party to the very conditions that you flee.