The Innovator's Dilemma: Masjid Edition

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This article is the 4th in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

Why would we invest in mail-order DVD’s when that would hurt our retail business?

That’s the question Blockbuster asked itself when Netflix appeared on the block.

It’s easy to see in hindsight they should have invested in the ‘new’ business instead of holding on to the existing one. At the moment it appeared to be a rational decision made by super qualified people. They were doing everything right and had no reason to believe Netflix was a real threat.

This is a glimpse into what Clayton Christensen calls the Innovator’s Dilemma (not to be confused with the dilemma of bid'ah). An organization can be doing everything right, and yet, they’ll still lose their stature and leadership.

Do you cater to your existing audience, or adopt a new way of doing things to address future needs instead?

This is the same dilemma facing our local Islamic centers.

Masjids have reached a certain level of success by doing things a particular kind of way. Funds were collected and managed with a goal of establishing institutions - build masjids, full-time Islamic schools, gyms, Sunday schools, hire an imam, and then maybe a youth director.

This model works. And depending on how you see things, the argument can be made that it is currently working and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Accepting that premise, however, is precisely what opens the institution of the modern masjid up to the threat of disruption. When things are working by your definition, there is no longer an incentive to see how other small organizations are attracting congregants the masjid can’t reach. There’s no incentive to listen to people who feel marginalized by the community. And there is no incentive to invest in the human resources needed to build for the future. From their perspective, the masjid is still overcrowded on Fridays, Sunday school is beyond capacity, and funds are still rolling in. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Changing this model by going from 1 imam to a resident scholar + imam + sister’s religious director + youth director + full-time admin is seen as over a 500% increase in bottom line expense. What’s the ROI (return on investment) for that? [Please refer to Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be for a more detailed analysis on measure masjid ROI]

The world is changing rapidly. As our community centers have struggled to keep up with this change, we see people shifting to getting their spirituality online, third spaces, or other initiatives outside the masjid space.

Ignoring those changes is a sign of weak leadership. It is a failure to recognize the need to adapt and an inability to articulate a clear vision for the future. What can the masjid provide to provide spiritual guidance? How can it cultivate bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood for community members? How will it attract and engage those who are disconnected (regardless of age)? And how will it continue to do that 20 years from now with all the rapid changes we will experience in society?

This is the lens by which we must critically examine “how things have always been done.” We must find a way to honor the past while simultaneously investing in the future.

Of course, everyone thinks they’re investing in the future. There is a gap in how board or shura members see themselves, and how everyone else sees them. This gap occurs when the vision and mission of an organization get lost. Organizations drift away from the future vision and begin to focus on self-preservation. They’ll spend time doing things like rewriting the constitution and by-laws and overemphasizing their structure and procedures.

This is good management practice. The problem with sound management practice is that it is incentivized to preserve the status quo - just with more efficiency.

Focusing on the vision fosters true leadership. It enables strategic decision making to achieve the desired future outcomes.

When that strategic vision can be tied to future outcomes that the community has bought into - that is when you create momentum and practically engage in the practice of community building.