We hear hints about this apparent truth here and there. “Business is business, whether you’re manufacturing cogs, selling widgets, or selling a service.” I’ve been in certain leadership training seminars where the room held representatives from all manner of contexts, with corporate CEOs to clergy attending to the same latest ideas about how to lead better and manage more effectively in their organizations.
I have some hunches as to why all systems are so similar:
Relationships systems follow universal rules. I first stumbled across this insight when I picked up a book titled How to Run Any Organization. I still have in on my bookshelf, and I must admit it has served me well in all the contexts I’ve worked in: school administration, corporate, congregation, non-profits, etc. The second place where that idea finds support is in Bowen Systems Theory, which identified universal rules applicable to all relationship systems, from family to business; from government to church. Because relationship systems self-organize according to universal principles, we can expect to see certain characteristics that are shared universally. These include: the function of leadership, the presence of anxiety and the manifestation of reactivity, the emergence of homeostatic dynamics, the presence of reciprocal dynamics (overfunctioning-underfunctioning, seperateness-togetherness, etc.), the emergence of systemic patterns that serve a variety of purposes.
Systems of a kind will tend to share the same organizational metrics as indicators of effectiveness, vitality, and viability. The metrics for "educational effectiveness" published by educational institutions--whether universities or theological schools--are similar, if not identical. The metrics used by non-profit organizations (e.g., those related to social value, market potential, and sustainability) apply to organizations of that kind regardless of size, mission, or location. While that makes common sense, what is surprising is how many leaders and board members of those organizations would not be able to identify those metrics if asked.
Complexity emerges from simple rules. While systems and organizations may appear different on the surface they seem all to arise and operation on fundamentally simple rules. The most complex corporation started small and is effective to the extent it can “follow the rules” of its nature. Large congregations look different from small congregations, but ask any pastor and he or she will likely confirm that no matter the size of the congregation, leaders tend to deal with the same problems. A large theological school looks different from a small seminary, but a room full of deans from schools across the spectrum of denominations, geographical areas, and school size will all share about the same challenges. And, they'll immediately chuckle at the comment, "We all have the same Faculty."
Human nature is the same everywhere. Culture, race, ethnicity, and epochs mediate the universal principles that direct relationship systems, but it doesn’t take much to scratch below the surface and discover that human nature is the same everywhere, and it has been for a long while. Perhaps the best place to see this is in narrative-—those stories that are so good about depicting the human spirit and its interior world. Reading the works of the Greek poets and playwrights to Shakespeare, to Checkoff and Dostoevsky to Mark Twain will serve to confirm that we humans laugh, cry, yearn, fear, and hope for the same things—-and always have. Idealists who want to create utopias and social organizations that are “totally new” often forget that those new creations will always be populated by the same old people.
The brain is the same everywhere. There may be a biological cause as to why all systems seem so similar. The organic brain, its patterns and its epistemology, are universally the same for everyone everywhere in whatever culture. Hence the educational truism, “Everybody everywhere learns the same way.” For example, barring neurological anomalies or organic brain syndromes, every person’s brain learns language the same way. And, dismissing claims of clairvoyance and ESP, everybody’s brain processes phenomenon the same way, for the most part. Given that fact, we can expect that when a group of individuals gathers together to form Group A, they’re pretty much going to be more similar than different to the group of individuals that gather together for form Group B. That’s a great convenience to teachers who find they can effectively re-cycle a well-designed courses year after year with little change and still achieve desired learning outcomes with little variance from the norm. This insight can help ease the transition for leaders moving from one context to another is a system of a kind (from one congregation to another, from one theological school to another). Culture and context will mediate some things--like emotional process, practices, ethos, and values--but all systems of a kind tend to function in much the same ways.
What are some of your hunches as to why systems are so similar?
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.