While at Cambridge University several generations ago, I researched an historical management case study focused on sustainable organizations. An innovative clergyman, Charles Simeon, created a 5-step cycle that fixed a minority group in English ecclesiastical society “to the remotest ages” through a strategy that generated a balancing loop, which offset an existing reinforcing loop. Reinforcing loops are cycles that build momentum each time a loop is completed. They can work like virtuous circles or like death spirals. (The former are preferable, btw.) To counter a death spiral, you need a balancing loop. (But if it’s an airplane were talking about, better use the parachute.)
The current reinforcing loop blocked clergymen of Simeon’s ilk from parish service, so he created a systems adjustment strategy through a balancing loop.
The steps to Simeon’s balancing loop were:
- Recruit young men at Cambridge University for the Anglican ministry through “conversation parties” at his rooms in Kings’ College.
- Establish theological colleges next to major universities for ordination training.
- Encourage sympathetic bishops in dioceses so that ordinands would be ordained.
- Purchase advowsons to place ministers in parishes and manage them through a trust.
- Support annual clergy meetings for continuing education and sustaining relationships.
All this started in the late eighteenth century, and over 200 parishes in the Church of England continue functioning to this day as a result. While others obviously assisted in this strategy, Simeon’s hand can be seen throughout.
Functionally, this loop identified the five key momentum drivers – no more, no less – that were needed to offset the existing system that opposed his desired end. The reinforcing loop offset by his balancing loop became literally a perpetual motion machine over the last two centuries or so.
The genius in the strategy lay in point number 4. While opponents could attack or shut down any of the other four drivers in the system, the advowson tactic removed parishes from the marketplace and legally protected them for a very long time. The demand side – the need for ministers in the parish – drove each of the other four supply-side drivers. As long as openings in the parishes occurred through death, resignation or transfer, the system purred along. A point of vulnerability could be the trustees overseeing #4, but this has generally not been a problem.
Additional elegance is found in the simplicity of five drivers. Perhaps four might work, but I’m not sure.
So here’s five thoughts for sustaining organizations:
- Frame your organization in terms of reinforcing or balancing loops
- Find the smallest number of momentum drivers
- Give each the simplest possible task
- Identify and isolate a key driver that can generate a perpetual motion machine
- Monitor cycles with the longest view in mind, always innovating
Can this work in business? Try Apple Computer … drivers could be:
- Steve Jobs
What if Jobs dies? What if the heavily-hyped new product events flag? Innovation may be the key driver here. Can companies lose their ability to innovate? Of course.
Have you ever conceived your organization/company as a sustainable reinforcing loop?