In the 1950s, a lot of companies had the same organizational structure as the Catholic church. You reported up the hierarchy, and you did what the leaders told you to do. And then, in 1961, a surprising study discovered that innovative companies were just the opposite:
They are adapted to unstable conditions....Interaction runs laterally as much as vertically. Communication between people of different ranks tends to resemble lateral consultation, rather than vertical command.
In 1969, legendary business scholar Karl Weick began to call this an organic structure--with semi-autonomous teams and units that can shift in form and reorganize spontaneously. And in the last four decades, more and more research studies have confirmed these findings: innovative organizations are the exact opposite of the top-down hierarchical structures associated with mid-century manufacturing firms. Managers who want their companies to be innovative, who work in environments of rapid change, realize they need a flat, organic structure to adapt and survive. Even factories now have a more organic, flexible structure--like the Brazilian company Semco, which has essentially abolished senior management and runs its operations with local teams of workers. (I tell these stories in my book Group Genius.)
Maybe the Catholic church doesn't need to be innovative. After all, if you're following the word of God, if you have knowledge of the absolute truth, then perhaps you'd never need to change. And that's often the sort of statement that comes out of Rome. After all, the church is growing (although the new members come from developing countries), so the leadership can argue that it's been successful by sticking to an organizational structure that was invented a few thousand years ago, in the age of monarchy and serfdom--three or four major economic and societal transformations ago.
Does the Catholic church need to worry about being innovative? I'd like to hear from both Catholics and from critics. The church's recent very-public crises certainly demonstrate a lack of adaptability and agility. Is it be possible for the church to become more agile and flexible, and yet retain its firm commitment to its ancient organizational structure and leadership hierarchy? Or is a more radical change needed?
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