"I would submit that the genius of the SBC was its ability to shape a center -- an identity and mythology -- around which a diverse regional, theological and popular constituency could cooperate," he writes. "The center did not eliminate diversity and conflict -- far from it -- but it created an environment in which numerous factions could join together (unite would be too strong a term) in common endeavor."
Set up in a way that consciously mirrored the old-style stable American corporation, the Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Leonard writes, developed doctrinal statements that were "specific enough to be peculiarly Baptist but general enough to include some theological flexibility."
GOING WITH THE FLOW
How might a company work with, rather than against, the tendency of people to form small tight groups?
In the late 1940's, Mr. Campbell, the evolutionary biologist, studied an insurance company that had once organized its clerks by function, so that one group handled new accounts, another took claims, a third did billings and so on. The company had recently divided the clerks into teams, each assigned to handle all functions for its own small group of agents. That made each team comparable to the others, as all were engaged in the same work, and that got their competitive juices flowing. The lust to excel as a team led each group to work more efficiently and diligently. Ultimately, the company was able to make do with as few as half the old number of clerks.
The larger lesson, Mr. Campbell argued, is that managers should go along with this inclination to group up. Setting up competing comparable groups had worked for this company. Another approach might be to reward a team as a whole for good performance, rather than rewarding individuals. Of course, such creative-tension competitions are also subject to the stresses of freedom versus coherence. A team that develops an "Us against the World" mentality may not behave as if it is part of a larger entity anymore.
Thinkers in the West have debated for centuries about the reality of group experience. Some have argued that the character and structure of a social group, as the sociologist Talcott Parsons would have had it, is "as real as a sea shell." For others, group identity is a kind of mass hallucination, easily punctured by the smallest speck of gritty self-interest, where true motives lie. What you make of the idea of corporate identity depends in large part on how important a role you think pure self-interest plays in the psychology of your employees.
To those who believe people's decisions and allegiances are mostly rational, a corporation's identity is a kind of fiction. The company may present itself as if it were a tribe or family, but it's really better understood as a complex system, whose shape emerges from patterns in the interactions of many separate actors. The solar system, with its planets, moons and asteroids affecting each other's movements, is one such system.
So is the world's weather. So is a city's traffic in rush hour, which settles into predictable patterns even though no single driver is worrying about the overall flow of cars and trucks. So too a stock market -- with its thousands of traders each pursuing his or her own interests -- will respond to news as if guided by Adam Smith's famous "invisible hand."
"Complex systems," with patterns of action that emerge without some coordinating intelligence or grand design, have been studied by complexity theorists, who take particular interest in the way such systems seem to be able to respond to their environments and even evolve in response to changes. Often, it seems a complex system will evolve the optimum solution to some problem, even though no intelligence planned such a solution. Some managers have applied this complex systems approach to organizations -- for example, replacing a carefully calibrated central-control system for painting trucks with one in which computer-driven painting booths compete to paint the most trucks. Such a system quickly arrives at a solution that uses less paint to cover more trucks in less time. (See "Between Chaos and Order: What Complexity Theory Can Teach Business," in Issue 3 of Strategy & Business.)