Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Change is Never Easy

No one ever said that change was easy. General Motors provides an appropriate case study. In 1985, GM CEO Rogers Smith announced the Saturn initiative: “A Different Kind of Company. A Different Kind of Car.” The goal was to remake the way that Americans made automobiles in order to be more competitive with the Japanese. I was personally co-opted by this effort. I bought a Saturn in the early 90’s. It was new, it was relatively inexpensive, and it was made in Tennessee. In fact, after that one car was long gone, we bought a used Saturn for my wife to drive. Despite some glitches, we liked the car and the dealer service was excellent. We even knew people who worked at the plant.

In the current issue of Newsweek, journalist Paul Ingrassia explains why Saturn failed. He explains the difficulties of true innovation, dealing with entrenched interests (such as the UAW), and envy (from within the company). For the theologians among us, the story has all the classic ingredients—greed, pride, sin, betrayal, hubris. It is not a pretty story. His article helps us to understand why American automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) are in BIG trouble.

Churches and judicatories can learn from the Saturn experience. Whenever one tries to do something truly innovative, resistance is inevitable. Even if top leadership buys in initially, life is short and “the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” comes on the scene all too soon and the idea has to be sold all over again to one who was not there at the beginning. There are also those entrenched interests who are quick to say, “We just don’t do it that way here.” In addition, there are those who stand on the sidelines—the general public, church members, casual participants—and anticipate failure. Nothing draws attention like an accident!

I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, but perhaps we can take some small comfort from the fact that even the giants of industry can stumble when it comes to change. Change is not for the faint of heart. Being a true change agent is a gift from God.

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