Institutional Change Requires Funerals

May 9th, 2010

Also published on The Huffington Post

At dinner the other night, a friend and I ended up talking about ways to drag one of the more hierarchical and hidebound segments of the Progressive Movement (a.k.a. The Great Leftist Conspiracy) into the modern world of communicating and organizing. Making a point about the difficulty of turning the proverbial battleship once it’s set on course, I said that “institutional change requires funerals,” a phrase my colleague loved. It’s an old idea but a concise way of putting it, so I wrote it down before it slipped away — grab ‘em tight; the good lines are rare.

Not that by saying “funerals” I’m necessarily implying that actual people have to die, though casualties among the leadership can facilitate quick changes in just about any organization (junior officers rose fast in the Civil War, where unit commanders were expected to lead from the front). But SOMETHING usually has to give out for a large organization to change itself fundamentally, whether it’s a leader’s tenure, an organizational structure or the reign of an idea. In this case, my friend and I concluded that our subject was unlikely to change on its own until another generation of leaders took control, something that might end up involving a real funeral or two. But this community would have to give up some cherished ideas, too, particularly ones involving authority, obedience, and the ways in which individual supporters could be trusted to work on their own — things coded deeply into the DNA of a long-lived political or social movement.

A hard task, though hardly a hopeless one. Turning a dinosaur on a dime isn’t easy, but people have done it before, and recently — for a great example, see the David Brooks Times column from last week about the transformation of the U.S. Army over the past half-decade. What was for much of the 20th century a bureaucratic and careerist behemoth dedicated to refighting the Last War, the Army has now morphed into a relatively nimble force that’s opened itself to criticism and rethought its tactical doctrine, and that values the ideas and initiatives of younger officers fresh from the harsh classroom of combat. [For more on the Army's evolution, read Fred Kaplan's extensive coverage.]

Other institutions can follow the Army’s lead, but only if they open themselves as drastically to the idea that they don’t already have all the answers. In the meantime, my friend and I could only empathize with the online activists in this particular community, who get to watch as other people assemble modern political operations and wonder why they can’t do the same. Unfortunately, THAT’S likely to require a few funerals, or at least a few more retirement ceremonies.


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