Clayton Christensen on Mormonism and Disruptive Innovation

Last year, Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School published a short essay on how Mormon ideas and sensibilities might have shaped Mitt Romney’s economic thinking. I found this passage particularly interesting:

On the one side, we believe that the Lord told us, “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things. Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will; for the power is in them. He that doeth not anything until he is commanded, the same is damned.” (Doctrine and Covenants, 58:26 – 29; which I have condensed). And on the other side, several times every year, we raise our hands in conference to signify that we will sustain and follow our leaders. We are an innovative but obedient people.

Many of the important programs and institutions in our church, as a result, were innovations developed by local leaders, to solve local problems. As our prophet and apostles have then learned of these innovations and their effectiveness, they have asked every congregation in the world to adopt the innovations – and almost everyone does. Our systems of welfare, teaching our children, missionary program, and our ability to help the unemployed to find work, are examples of this. Responsibility for innovation is dispersed and bottom-up. When a better way is discovered, top-down direction drives broad and uniform adoption.

This duality is rare in our economy. For example, in education many teachers and administrators don’t view innovation as their job. They do their job year after year with little change, even though they are surrounded by evidence that change is badly needed. A few have produced extraordinary innovations in teaching and learning – such as KIPP Schools and Hi-Tech High. But even the best of these innovations scale slowly. Educators instead question the innovations’ effectiveness; muster countervailing data; or hide behind regulation.

Certainly some don’t apply to their professional pursuits what they can observe at church about the importance of this duality of innovation and implementation. But for those who use their membership in the Mormon Church as a graduate school for robust principles, it pays off.

The top-down direction Christensen describes is very hard to achieve in a diverse society, and so his essay is a reminder that one of the challenges U.S. society faces is the need to build trust and social cohesion across different cultural groups.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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