Friday, February 23, 2007

Meetings Make Us Dumber

One of the greatest things about working in higher education is lunch. Really… lunch is great at the University; you can count on great conversations. It is a real privilege to work with so many smart people.

Today I brought up the story I saw posted yesterday on MSNBC titled Meetings Make Us Dumber, Study Shows. It turns out that the headline was more interesting than the article. The basic gist of the article was that “people have a harder time coming up with alternative solutions to a problem when they are part of a group.” Sorry MSNBC, this is not big news.

Our lunch bunch agreed. Group think is rarely good at coming up with good solutions. So, we asked, should we ditch all the meetings we attend? No… but why? I think we correctly identified that meetings are great for two vital tasks:
  • Identifying problems and opportunities, and
  • Making good solutions better

That gave us a model that we’ve all seen work:

  1. Use groups and teams to identify problems and opportunities. Meetings are great for identifying problems that need attention, or noticing opportunities that might be seized.
  2. Look to individuals or small teams to formulate, and document, a solution or a few solutions.
  3. Use groups and teams to counterpunch with the proposal. Again, meetings are great for taking good solutions and making great solutions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Marketing’s New Idea or the Church’s Old Idea?

An ancillary comment delivered by Dr. Brian Stiller in his concluding talk in a lecture series here at Northwest University got me thinking about something I heard recently on the HBR IdeaCast. The current issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) includes their annual survey of emerging ideas under the title Breakthrough Ideas for 2007.

Breakthrough Idea #3 introduces the idea of cohort marketing. The brief article explains that “the typical brand manager is an ageist.” There are, of course, all sorts of ways to segment markets, but breaking markets up into generations is probably the most common and effective. So, a brand manager targets a generation and then manages the brand by attracting those who are aging in at a rate equal or greater to the number of those aging out. As middle aged men move from Polo to Brooks Brothers, brand mangers drag young men away from Abercrombie and move them into Polo. This is a tried and true method; it is marketing conventional wisdom.

The HBR, with new idea #3, urges consideration of a different approach. A cohort branding approach dictates that once a brand manager selects a generation, the work then becomes managing the brand in such a way that it matures with the cohort. This is a strategy aimed at nurturing brand loyalty. Rather than counting on customers moving from Ford Mustangs to Lincoln Continentals as they age (risking the loss of the customer in the transition), the strategy would be to let a brand segment morph and age with the consumer. The model they offer is the Harry Potter brand; the series is primarily targeted at kids who are the same age as Harry and they all, Harry and customers, are aging together. The strategy certainly has limits (anybody interested in an Oscar Meyer filet mignon?), but it is an interesting idea.

I contend that the Church has been doing cohort marketing for years, although sometimes without intention. In our contemporary churches it is not uncommon for a ministry to age, often times right along with the founding pastor. So a church might start young and hip, but then the nurseries get upgraded when the leaders start having kids, then children’s church becomes a major focus and maybe even a Christian school, followed by youth groups, and so on. Other aspects of cohort marketing in church contexts drive us to keep things the same. Music tastes, for example, often don’t change as we age; so a cohort strategy for churches would be to lock in to one music style and hold on to it through the years.

In a more macro sense, entire denominations seem to follow this cohorting pattern. Something new happens, an organization forms, and it develops and matures along with its leadership. But somewhere along the way the organization’s rate of change slows, or even stops, and organizational forces are then applied to holding on to an era, at which point the organization faces the risk of becoming irrelevant.

A simple approach to cohort marketing has an obvious fatal flaw: cohorting puts an expiration date on a brand. A church that follows this simple path will eventually die with its leadership.

But if we would come to grips with cohorting, it could unlock a path to increased effectiveness. I think I can make a case that individual churches should cohort. The local church is the best expression of the Body of Christ. Sure, Jesus saves and the Holy Spirit indwells individual believers, but persons are saved and filled to not merely remain persons but to become a people, the church, God’s cohort of believers knit together to worship, serve, and witness.

Many small group strategies work in this sort of cohorting fashion. A church could embrace this too, as long as it could manage several cohorts. In the corporate world, cohort marketing only works over time if there are new (or possibly renewed or recycled) brands introduced on a periodic basis. In the church world, leaders would need to intentionally manage a range of cohorts through multiple services. I understand the rationale behind a strategy that simply duplicates a one-size-fits-all worship service a few times on a Sunday morning, or even several times throughout a week, but I think applying this cohorting strategy could increase impact. If congregations were encouraged to cohort, it could result in deeper meaning, stronger service, and more loyalty.

A successful denomination or church organization needs to resist cohorting for the whole group, but rather intentionally lead a multi-cohort strategy. The difficulty here could be that organizational leaders may mistake cohort distinctives as what ought to distinguish the whole, which would likely lead to getting stuck in an era and eventually becoming irrelevant. There needs to be more of a big tent mentality, lots of different expressions of style that are bound together around unifying goals and principles for the good of all.

I’m interested in feedback from readers. Does this make some sense or is it wrongheaded? Do you have examples of how this does work in the church world, or how it has failed? I’d like to hear from you; use the comments option below.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lost Sheep

At least half and up to two-thirds of our kids will step away from their faith while attending non-Christian colleges and universities. This is the most startling statistic distributed in recent reports published by Christianity Today based on studies by Dr. Steven Henderson. Dr. George Wood, General Secretary of the General Council of the Assemblies of God, goes on to report this statistic in terms of our sponsoring church when he says, “nine years from now, as many as 189,000 of our 315,000 youth could be drop-outs from the faith.” Dr. Wood’s report has been circulated among our faculty and leadership at Northwest; you can access it here

At our University, we are grateful for the nearly 1,300 students that are in our care this year, but we are also mindful of these 189,000 potential lost sheep.

Reports like these remind us of our stewardship responsibility. The years that students spend at our University are often among their most important years of formation as they become Christian adults. While here at Northwest, students are challenged to think deeply about their faith, employing academic rigor and critical analysis tools in ways that are likely new to their Christian experience. We may challenge them to ask questions they have never asked before. What makes our Faculty members different from their counterparts in secular institutions is that their goal is to drive students toward their faith, not away from their faith. The faithful stewardship of this trust demands that we nurture our students’ faith, building a solid foundation that will stand up against the inevitable attacks they will face throughout the rest of their adult lives.

We are mindful of the lost sheep when we do our work in recruitment. Even though our work shares some of the trappings of marketing campaigns and sales tactics, we know that there is so much more at stake. Our recruiters are motivated by a very real sense that they are dealing with God’s plan and calling in the lives of our prospective students. Recruitment, at least for us, isn’t merely about closing a deal with a student, it is about helping a student answer God’s calling and preparing for a life of service.

Reports like these also increase our burden for fundraising. Cost certainly is not the only barrier that keeps a student from attending our University, but it is one of the toughest barriers to face. Every dollar we can raise that helps keeps our costs low, is a meaningful step toward reaching lost sheep.

This report impacted me as a leader in Christian Higher Education as it reminded me of important principles that have guided my work over the years, but this specific report impacted me even more as a Pastor. For nearly 20 years I have been involved in drawing students to Christian higher education because I know, firsthand, what a difference a place like Northwest University can make in the life of a student. For the last 5 years I have also been involved in sending students to Christian higher education as I have been serving as pastor. As I read the reports from my perspective as a pastor, it occurred to me that this is not merely about the impact of a Christian university on a student, but it is also very much about the way a church like mine disciples students so that they will be apt to choose a Christian university. I need to be more purposeful about leading my church in such a way that the young people under my care are the kinds of young men and women who want to choose a place like Northwest. My church needs to help lead these students to this important choice.

The reports also reminded me how important churches like mine are in supporting Christian higher education with prayer, influence, involvement, and finances. There are all sorts of agenda being advanced at universities across our country by organizations that stand in opposition to the Church. Even our governments advance positions that are contrary to our Christian stance through support of their universities. I need to lead my church in such a way that we are advancing our cause and providing for our church’s future leadership through support of Northwest University.

Beyond the impact on me as a university administrator and pastor, the impact that hit closest home was on me as a dad. My oldest son Alex will be making his choice of a university in just a few short years; his 11 year-old brother Donny will be making his choices soon after. I’m glad that they are already planning on making that choice Northwest, and that I will be able to support them in that choice. A lot can change, of course, as my boys grow up and the crucial time for their decision approaches. As a dad, I know that I will serve my boys best by helping them understand the weight of that choice and providing them with a clear view of the value of choice for a Christian university.