Building for Growth

One of my favorite books is The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge. I don’t recommend it as bedtime reading; it’s 403 pages of densely packed text on systemic analysis in the business world, but that just happens to be my cup of tea. You can see in the photo above what the pages of my copy look like.

In the chapter about growth, the book says, “If there is a genuine potential for growth, build capacity in advance of demand, as a strategy for creating demand.”

To illustrate, it tells the story of a technology company that built a particular type of superior computers, selling these with the guarantee of a two-weeks-or-less delivery time. At first, things went swimmingly. Customers loved the product and were drawn in by the rapid delivery. The sales force functioned extremely well—possibly too well—and eventually, it became clear that there would come a time when the factory couldn’t keep up.

One bright executive suggested building a new factory, but the others were not convinced. What if sales slowed down? Better to wait until they were certain of the market.

Eight months or so later, demand did outstrip supply, and at that point, executives approved building a new factory. But construction took a good six months, and in that time, the two-weeks-or-less delivery guarantee stretched to four, then six, then eight, and finally, customers began cancelling orders and purchasing instead from competitors. By the time the new factory opened, demand had dipped so far that the new factory was superfluous.

To make things worse, when demand eventually began to creep back up—after all, the company was selling a superior product in comparison with its competitors—the executives did not learn from their earlier mistake. When it was suggested that a third factory would eventually be necessary, they delayed: “Last time we did that, demand dropped and we wasted all that money!” When demand again outstripped capacity, the delivery wait time again became unreasonable, which again caused demand to drop, this time irrevocably.

The company went out of business.

“If there is a genuine potential for growth, build capacity in advance of demand, as a strategy for creating demand.”

Why am I talking about this on a Quaker blog?

We’re not selling a product, but the principle is relevant anyway. Let’s take a look at this “if-then-because” statement.

Starting with the if: “If there is a genuine potential for growth…” This strikes me as an of course. The Quaker message is universal, empowering, and hopeful. All people have direct access to the Divine. By listening intently to the voice of Spirit and following the leadings we hear, we can be transformed as individuals. Furthermore, by doing this listening in communities and by following leadings together, we can build a world in which all people are safe, fed, housed, clothed, educated, respected, and loved, and in which all creation thrives. There is no way that this message would not be appealing to more than the less-than-a-million people who currently call themselves Friends.

So let’s look at the next bit of the sentence: “…build capacity in advance of demand…” What does that mean, in a Quaker context? Does it mean to get a bigger building? Well, yes, if yours is one of the very few Quaker meetings that has no more room for anybody to sit. But many of us are in the opposite circumstance, with physical facilities that are comically big. How can we, then, build capacity?

It’s more about preparing for people who aren’t yet there.

Even if you don’t yet have small children, you can have soft toys in the worship space and a collection of picture books and a dedicated volunteer to provide.

Even if you don’t yet have teens, you can have a room or corner that’s a designated “teen space,” with couches and bean bag chairs and a Friend who’s qualified and prepared to serve as an adult presence.

Even if you don’t yet have any visitors or newcomers, you can have a designated “welcoming Friend” and a stack of pamphlets (regularly dusted) and a glossary to attach to every business meeting agenda.

Even if you don’t yet have anyone who’s hard of hearing, you can use a microphone in meeting for worship.

Even if you don’t yet have language diversity among your attenders, you can have a small Spanish section or Korean section or Russian section in your library, or whatever language other than English makes the most sense in your neighborhood.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who are struggling financially, you can create or simplify processes by which meeting funds cover Quaker-related costs for those who need assistance.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who are genderqueer, you can make sure there are easily accessible gender-neutral bathrooms.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who struggle with mobility, you can install ramps and move coffee hour to a first-floor location.

And even if you don’t yet have racial diversity in your meeting, you can read Lifting the White Veil or Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship or participate in an e-retreat about understanding and healing white supremacy.

If you don’t take these steps to welcome the new Friends before they arrive, then like the company selling computers, you’re building capacity just a little too late. This is the last part of the statement: “…as a strategy for creating demand.” We build capacity for the community we hope to have because otherwise, we are demonstrating by our behavior that the only people we want are those who look and act exactly like us. And those who do not look and act exactly like us will understand that implicitly and will stay away.

Good intentions are not the issue; we have to look at the impact. Exactly who are we prepared to welcome? Not who are we wishing would come, not who do we like to think we would welcome, but who are we actually—physically, emotionally, intellectually, monetarily, and spiritually—ready for? In a very real way, the answer to that question limits who will come.

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