Several years ago, one of our company leaders at American Express said that when it came to innovation, it was best to be the second company to make that change. If you were the first one, you had the disadvantage of having to work out all the bugs. If you were the second one, you could benefit from the first company’s mistakes. If you were the third or fourth or later company to make this change, you had already lost too much market share.

New Wine, Old Bottles

Over the last week I’ve been reading with wariness the announcement of the BYU Honor Code change to an environment that allows celibate gay students the freedom to date (chastely) like their heterosexual peers without their entire education being threatened by other students reporting them to the Honor Code Office. Given the impacts to these students who’ve chosen to attend BYU, who attend Church, many who’ve served missions, the change is something that will allow them to study in peace and to finish the degrees they are seeking without being hounded and persecuted by their fellow students. Most members of faculty and students are thrilled with these changes, but there are some who are banding together to oppose these changes under the banner of SaveBYU (one example), believing that the purity of the Church and the Y are at stake if gay students are allowed this level of personal freedom. This is an example of why Pres. Nelson said to take your vitamins because change was coming.

In the book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, he points out something very disruptive that explains the leaps forward that occur in industries: new entrants. When you aren’t tied to the baggage of the past, you can create something entirely new and essentially break an industry. Existing companies that want to compete in a completely new space have to tear down old structures and behaviors that were necessary to support the preceding technology or system. A new company doesn’t have to do that. This also explains why many countries with emerging economies and poor infrastructure may have no landlines but have nearly universal cell phone coverage. A disrupting new idea can build something that doesn’t rely on old systems. It also allows companies (or countries) to create something fresh that is well-suited to a new technology, product or system while ignoring the old technology or system that they never fully invested in. Or as Jesus put it, when you try to put new wine in old bottles (or wineskins), the bottles burst. They don’t work. Clearly Jesus read the Innovator’s Dilemma.

This is also behind the idea that Mormonism is a restoration church. We don’t have to deal with doctrines that had crept into Christianity that we don’t like. We aren’t a protestant Church explaining why we broke with Rome. We can just create (or restore) doctrine and the structures and that suit that doctrine. Joseph Smith was particularly wary of codifying structures or documents that might create future brittleness. He decried “creeds” which had a tendency to become doctrinal baggage that would hold back a Church from further light and knowledge through revelation or increased understanding.[1] When the Church was restored, our doctrines and scriptural interpretations (and scriptures!) were new wine. They couldn’t be inserted into an existing sect of Christianity without breaking it. They were radical enough to require a completely new religion to hold them (and maybe more importantly to enable their creation). They were an innovation in a stale market.[2]

Structures Lead to Structural Failure

On another project I was on, we discussed how to design the user experience. Where did we want the users to go? Someone raised the valid point that first we needed to know where the users went naturally: the cow trails. You can fence the cows in, but where the pastures are wide, you can see the migration patterns of the cows, and they usually are related to what helps the cows survive: water, avoiding poisonous plants, following the herd (which protects them from predators), etc. This is one of my main beefs with the layout of the quad at BYU and on most campuses, actually. When the trails force late students trying to make it to class on time to go around two sides of a square to get to class, you can bet they are going to cut corners and run across the grass.

Sarah Winchester used this line of thinking in creating her mansion. Because she feared retribution from the angry ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles, she built a house that was deliberately designed to confuse the ghosts. Staircases led nowhere or straight into the ceiling, doors were installed that didn’t open, some rooms were cut off from the rest of the house. Was she crazy? Yeah. But the principle holds true: when you make create dysfunctional structures, the users (or in her case, angry ghosts) get confused and eventually give up and quit using the system.

The more structures you have, the harder it will be to make changes happen. Most leaders understand this. If they create something they want to protect beyond their lifetime, the best way to do it is to codify it. That’s how we got the Nicene Creed, and it’s also how we got the Proclamation to the World (which hasn’t been canonized but is being treated as if it has). Sometimes structure gets created to protect an idea a leader feels must be preserved or it will die a natural death, but just as often codification of ideas happens through scope creep. I recently read the Honor Code of Southern Virginia University (an LDS affiliated but not owned 4-year school). On their website, there are photos of students and professors with neatly groomed beards. The dress and grooming section of their code says:

Our dress and grooming should be clean, modest, respectful, and appropriate for the occasion.

BYU’s code appears to be simple as well, until you realize that it points you to another document that actually contains the real code, and it’s got a LOT of caveats. You can be turned away from taking a test if you haven’t shaved recently enough or if you are wearing leggings. There are also rules about housing that force students to live in places that disallow opposite sex guests in certain areas of the apartment or after a curfew and that require word of wisdom observance. These are structures that preserve an increasingly strict set of behaviors, and they are much stricter than when I went to school there in the late 80s and early 90s. At a cursory glance, the following things have been explicitly added:

  • Regular Church attendance
  • Expansion of dress and grooming restrictions
  • A line about “following campus policies”
  • An annual ecclesiastical endorsement
  • Avoiding profane and vulgar language [3]
  • They just added vaping which wasn’t a thing then, but I would have assumed this would be verboten.

Going back to the amping up of the ecclesiastical endorsement, particularly when coupled with mandatory Church attendance, failure to obtain this means that you could be kicked out of school. The Honor Code Office has explained that most of their cases are opened due to “spontaneous confessions” by students. That is literally not a thing that was going on when I was a student there. If you had something to confess, you went to your bishop or possible a trusted professor who might recommend you go to your bishop. Some bishops were great, and some were terrible. Unless you stayed in the same apartment complex for multiple years, you changed bishops a lot. The fact that so many cases are the result of “spontaneous confessions” makes it obvious what is happening. By making Church attendance mandatory and requiring an annual ecclesiastical endorsement, some bishops are forcing confessing students to turn themselves in to the HCO. They are putting a student’s academic standing at risk over something confessed in private. Unless a student has some kind of compulsive disorder, she’s not going to spontaneously confess to the Honor Code Office. Why would she? As a result, the Honor Code office is many times as large as it was when I attended. We can see several structures in this example: an increasingly stringent behavior code, an annual interview, mandatory weekly attendance, and a growing HCO to handle the caseload generated by it all. I suspect we got here through the slippery slope of incrementally building hedges about the law to “clarify” every little case that comes up. Once you start creating those structures, it’s hard to justify throwing them out.

It’s the premise of another business book, First Break All the Rules. We tend to assume that we have to operate within the structures that exist. Nobody has time or resources to tear down all the freeways to build new ones. But when those existing structures start to fall apart, suddenly the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain of changing.

Blame the User

Back in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic began, it was mostly treated as a joke by those in power (although reports of the Reagan administration’s role are mixed). The very topic of homosexuality was still in the closet, and it was a time in which sexuality in any form wasn’t very openly discussed. Religions saw homosexuals as a separate group of people, deviants, not a part of their own congregation. It was mainstream for individuals to view homosexuals as choosing a profligate lifestyle, one that took them away from God. Most churches saw them as simply not the target audience for their message (ironic given who Jesus hung out with, but there it is).

Regardless, that is not the world we live in now, not at all. We know that being gay is not a choice any more than being heterosexual is. We understand sexual orientation as existing on a spectrum rather than a binary. We see it as natural that people want companionship and love, regardless their sexual orientation. The problem is that we have old wineskins that appear ready to burst–in some cases–if we try to add in this new wine. And that’s the age old innovator’s dilemma. What are those “old wineskins”? Things like the doctrine of the nuclear family (let’s be honest, that wasn’t the same thing that was preached as core doctrine in 1880) and of course temple liturgy.

Back when I did a lot of project work, we used to talk about the likelihood that a change would succeed using the following formula: quality of idea x buy-in = success. It was an important reminder to include the user experience into design, but also the psychology of the organization. Why would people fight the change? If you could design something that was easier to use than the existing system with as short and easy a transition time as possible, your chances of adopting the new product or process were much better. I was listening to the podcast, Cautionary Tales, and one of the episodes talked about the engineer who designed tanks for the first time during WW2. The British army was not equipped to incorporate the game-changing military technology into its existing structures. As if in protest, generals continued to assign cavalry horses to those assigned to tanks. I’m not sure how they were supposed to get the horses into the tanks, but that’s how skeptical the generals were of the new idea! Ultimately, the engineer was fed up with how unwilling the British army was to take his ideas seriously, and he went across the pond and shared his designs with the Germans who were enthusiastic and ultimately used the tanks against the Brits. Now, that’s a cautionary tale.

If you try to create an organization that wants to accept both white supremacists and people of color, you will end up with an organization of only white supremacists. Why would people of color want to be in such an organization? They may for a while, but only until there are any better alternatives. If you really want to change the makeup of the group, you have to take a convincing stand against racism. You have to take actions to disallow its extreme proponents. You have to create an intolerance among the mainstream for racist comments to be given air. That’s a minimum. When people say that the Church wasn’t ready to allow black people to hold the priesthood until 1978, what they are really saying is that God cared a lot more about racists than about people of color.

Early Adopters vs. Dinosaurs

We are at that same moment again, and right now, the Church (or BYU-P at least) is testing the old wineskins to see how much they can hold before they burst. Right now, it looks like they are holding, but we’ve barely put a few drops in, just the smallest amount possible, really. We’ve only presented the idea that gay students (many of whom probably entered BYU before admitting their own sexuality, even to themselves) should be allowed to finish their education without being persecuted and having their educational investment put in jeopardy simply for being who they are. Can the Church allow room for both homophobes and homosexuals? There only seems to be enough air in the room for one of these groups, and for too long, it’s been the wrong one.

But you can also be too early to adopt such changes. Timing is everything. 1978 was incredibly late in race acceptance. Growing up, I often wondered why there weren’t more black people at Church and why a Church with ongoing revelation would take so long after the Civil Rights movement to eliminate the Priesthood and Temple Ban (14 long years after 1964 if you’re counting). It would have made sense to me if the Church had a large presence in the southeastern US where racial religious segregation was common. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me until I went to BYU and lived in Utah for the first time. Nearly everyone was white, and their ancestors had lived in Utah for multiple generations. Utah wasn’t (at the time) a place that had many outsiders immigrating in (which has changed in the subsequent decades). The invisibility of the experience of other races was enough to keep it off the radar. It was easy to avoid racism in theory, to feel as though there was no real racial strife when everyone in the room was the same race. Nobody was claiming to be a racist; they just didn’t know they were because they weren’t being confronted by diversity.

Racial diversity challenges that thought process. For example, one of my roommates was told by a proctor in the testing center to raise her hand if she needed any help on the math test she was taking. She thought this was weird. Why was it OK to ask for help on the test? Did this guy know a lot about math? When she asked why he offered help, he slowed down his speech and explained with animated gestures that he meant if she needed help understanding the words. Because she appeared to be of Asian descent (she was Hawaiian), he assumed English was not her first language. She shared this story which was both funny and cringe-worthy, and hearing her experience helped others check their assumptions. Nobody wanted to be that guy.

Likewise, seeing LGB(sorry T) students who are doing normal behaviors for their age range while still living the same standards as other students makes it easier to understand their experience. When you outlaw innocuous behaviors, they appear more suspicious and nefarious. The lack of familiarity creates an empathy vacuum.

Conclusion

The most recent change to BYU’s honor code is an attempt to remove some of the structure that was harmful to a large population of students, putting them in the cross-hairs of fellow students who see their attendance at the Y as an impurity to be removed. Some students have pushed for the changes to be made more clear, but I wonder if a little ambiguity might not be better. The more we codify, the more we have to break down later as we figure things out. However, at the same time, we need to block the cow trails of the homophobes who dislike the changes. The current “loophole” appears to be reporting a gay student for dating with intent to marry, a claim that is pretty impossible to prove or disprove. I’d like to see that kind of rule being enforced among heterosexual students:

HCO: Brad and Janet, we needed to talk to you about your behavior. We understand that you may be dating with the intent to marry.

Brad: Yes, that’s right!

Janet: Eh, not really.

HCO: Uhm, awkward.

So what do you think?

  • Do you see other examples of innovations or changes in the Church that threaten the structures?
  • Do you think the wineskins will hold as LGB(and maybe T) policies evolve?
  • Are there additional structures that you think are threatened by more open acceptance of LGBT members?
  • Is the Church designed in such a way that it can handle new ideas better / be more structurally flexible based on ongoing revelation being a foundational principle? Defend your answer.

Discuss.

[1] A little ironic given how the Church has still codified things he didn’t necessarily intend to be used that way such as the PoGP version of the First Vision, the procedures around administering the sacrament, the Articles of Faith, the temple ceremony that wasn’t written down until decades after his death, etc.

[2] Obviously, Mormonism wasn’t the only innovating Church at the time, just one of many during the Second Great Awakening. Others include Seventh Day Adventists (roughly 21 million church members), Disciples of Christ (a movement which boasts three US presidents despite current membership at around 380K), Churches of Christ–non-denominational (roughly 2 million members worldwide), and many others.

[3] I know this was enforced when I attended there, but I’m not convinced it was explicitly written into the code. I had a roommate who was called in for writing “BS Ticket” (she spelled out the word) in the memo line of her check to pay a campus parking ticket. She had to apologize to the cashier. Cow trail solution: PROVIDE MORE PARKING!