The task of self renewal

Tightrope WalkerHistory teaches us that eventually innovative organisations and movements drift into decline and conservatism. By 1909 the incredibly successful Limelight Unit of the Salvation Army was effectively shut down by incoming Commissioner James Hay, an austere Scotsman. Less than ten years before, the unit had produced the world’s first full-length film (see “Why should the devil....) How can dynamic movements protect themselves from this inevitable trend?

Business writers Porras and Collins have identified two characteristics that protect visionary organisations from decline. Firstly, they balance self-confidence with self-criticism. They are self confident in their clarity about their mission and in the setting of audacious goals and willingness to make bold and daring moves to achieve those goals. Yet they practice self-criticism. They pursue self-induced change and improvement. They are their own harshest critics. Secondly, they balance a conservative commitment to their core identity and mission with a dynamic drive for progress. The drive for progress pushes an organisation towards continual change and forward movement in everything but the core ideology. The unchanging core ideology provides a base of continuity around which a visionary company can evolve, experiment and change. The dual commitment to both its core ideology and its progress provides catalyst for continual learning, renewal and growth.

According to Tanner dynamic organisations and movements use conflict constructively and creatively. They practice the discipline of "fit-split-contend-transcend." They are very clear about their identity and mission (fit) yet they encourage vigorous debate, experimentation and diversity in methods (split). Out of the ferment of this constructive conflict (contend) new possibilities emerge (transcend) and the movement continues to renew itself over time.

Dynamic movements maintain this creative tension between conserving their identity and mission while being willing to change everything else in the pursuit of achieving that mission, setting audacious goals and becoming its own best critic. Dying institutions are the opposite–willing to sacrifice their unique identity, conservative in setting goals, unable to face the reality of their mediocre performance. They just don't care any more.

James C. Collins, Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

Managing on the Edge: Companies That Use Conflict to Stay Ahead (Richard T Pascale)