Some enterprises, like tech start-ups, are all dream and no structure.
A founder’s dream of making a world-changing product compels other pioneers to work long, self-sacrificial days. In what resembles religious fervor, they are like monks in constant prayer, hunched over computers, collaborating at white boards and talking shop deep into the night.
Investors, however, want structure and a return on their investment. So, eventually, do employees, who want stock offerings, benefits and some sense that the dream has a future.
This awkward transition from dream-only to dream-plus-structure is where many enterprises fall apart. Freedom collides with accountability, jealousy emerges as some get better titles and more stock options and the freedom of “all in this together” gives way to stratification.
Even the founder can lose heart, as agenda-driven meetings with attorneys, accountants and clueless Wall Street suits replace brainstorming at the whiteboard with fellow techs.
Founders who can’t make that transition often find themselves shoved aside to make room for the “grown-ups,” as structure-people consider themselves.
Many early collaborators leave, too, as “bureaucrats” threaten to take away their freedom to invent, which was their primary reason for putting in long hours in the first place.
If every growing city’s dread is “becoming like Atlanta,” as they used to say in Charlotte before Charlotte became like Atlanta, then techs’ dread is “becoming like Microsoft.” Today’s Microsoft is bureaucratic, where layers of management must process every idea, leaving a slow enterprise that can’t seem to dream wildly enough to produce game-changing products and can’t free itself from “the suits.”
Keeping these three elements in balance – dream + freedom + structure — is daunting. Three personalities must collaborate, and those personalities — pioneer, settler and sheriff, or revolutionary, innovator and banker — don’t necessarily play well together.
Look at what happened in Christianity as Jesus, the ultimate dreamer and freedom-giver, left behind squabbling disciples who didn’t exactly share his dream or his ability to balance law, prophet and spirit. They, in turn, gave way to institutional types who systematically stifled the dream and took away freedom in order to perpetuate an institution.
Heavy-handed prelates ended freedom practices such as having women in leadership and allowing diverse thinking. In their stead arose an institution that was all structure and no creativity: formal creed, closed canon of Scripture, hierarchical orders of ministry and torture for nonconformists.
In a healthy society all three instincts are valued, and each one – dream, freedom and structure – adds a necessary ingredient to the mix. However, they don’t trust each other and each strives to gain supremacy. The dream of democracy collides with ideology. Shared prosperity collides with scarcity-driven budgeting. “Realists” battle “idealists.” “Conformists” try to rein in “free-thinkers.” “Dreamers” heap scorn on the ”suits.”
The result, as we see in Washington and in state capitals, is paralysis — an inability to make even basic decisions and an unwillingness to compromise. Lacking balance, the enterprise soon lacks fairness and vitality. The raw power of money asserts itself, and everyone loses.
Moneyed elites claiming to be “responsible” stifle dreamers, accumulate an unhealthy share of societal assets, and thwart structural constraints on greed and madness.
To avoid the oppression and injustice that inevitably follow, dreamers, free-thinkers and structure-minders must stop snarling at each other and join forces against greedy bullies.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)