One of the current rock stars in Mormonism is Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School and an innovation specialist. According to his website, Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” which he describes as
a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of the market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.
Examples of disruptors includes: cellular phones, community colleges, discount retailers, and retail medical clinics.
In a blog post on the washingtonpost.com, Christensen makes the following case for how “disruptive innovation” has impacted the LDS Church:
Many of the important programs and institutions in our church . . . were innovations developed by local leaders, to solve local problems. As our prophet and apostles have then learned of these innovations and their effectiveness, they have asked every congregation in the world to adopt the innovations – and almost everybody does. Our systems of welfare, teaching our children, missionary program, and our ability to help the unemployed to find work, are examples of this. Responsibility for innovation is dispersed and bottom-up. When a better way is discovered, top-down direction drives broad and uniform adoption.
When discussing the need for change in the way the LDS Church treats its women members, Neylan McBaine noted the following:
Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, known for his work on disruptive innovation, often speaks to LDS Harvard students about how many of the standard Church programs–seminary, Family Home Envening, for example–started from the initiative of a small group of church members who saw a need and innovated ways to address that need that didn’t compromise doctrine or divinely mandated ecclesiastical practices in any way. . .
McBaine wants to use “disruptive innovations” to forward the cause of women (or feminism, if you prefer) in the LDS Church. The problem with McBaine’s innovative proposals are that they are so minor they smack of tokenism.
And I’m not convinced by Christensen’s assessment that the LDS Church is deeply affected by bottom-up innovations. But I don’t know enough about the history of the programs he is using as examples to know how accurate his assessment is. (And if they were bottom-up innovations, have the innovators been given proper recognition? Thereby encouraging other innovators.)
McBaine inadvertently alludes to the problem with bottom-up innovations in the LDS Church when she states that the innovations shouldn’t “compromise doctrine or divinely mandated ecclesiastical practices.” For many Mormon, isn’t that about everything in the LDS Church?
Since I’m 67, I remember the pre-1978 years when the LDS Church discriminated against blacks. Now we are discriminating against gays. How do we change that problem, if the leadership wants to put it in the doctrine category? After the gay issue is resolved (and it will be), the next big issue will be discrimination against women. And the baby steps that McBaine is proposing will seem silly.
The major disruptive innovation of our era is the Internet, the worldwide web (not on Christensen’s list). It has forced the LDS Church to be more forthcoming about its history. It will ultimately force the church to be more forthcoming about its finances. It has allowed for large-scale social groups to develop around issues, making boring church services seem antiquated. It is now more difficult for the church leadership to control the message.
If you were to ask Mormons and non-Mormons if they thought their church was a top-down or bottom-up organization? We all know what the response would be. We are trained to be followers.