Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Seeing Change

One of the best tools in a leader’s toolbox is perspective. Leadership often comes with the privilege of being able to see the organization from more broad perspectives. While likely unfamiliar with important frontline details, leaders should be equipped with perspectives that include a wide range of aspects, as well as a view over time and a sense about the future.

Listening to Tim Keller recently (a talk on change that you can hear by using this link), I heard him say that growth and change cannot be seen, but only measured. While it may seem like we can literally watch our kids grow, for example, we really only know that they’ve grown by measurement and comparison over time. Likewise, an isolated snapshot of our organization alone cannot tell the story of growth, change and progress.

The idea that growth and change cannot be seen, but only measured, is an important leadership principle.

It is easy for us in any organization to go about our work with the misconception that we are not moving the ball forward. Are we making a difference today? Are today’s tasks doing anything to impact the big picture?

Leaders need to be continually about the work of sharing perspective. More than just telling people what it looks like from leadership’s point of view, leaders need to make opportunities to bring folk to points of broad perspective and help them see. Opportunities to share perspective take all sorts of shapes, including:
  • Reminding people of the past through storytelling and interviews of historical figures
  • Keeping track of meaningful metrics and reporting on progress clearly and regularly
  • Explaining how different parts of an organization are interrelated and symbiotic
  • Illustrating how sacrifices today are intended to produce tomorrow’s successes
  • Competently demonstrating an ability to see, synthesize, and interpret the broad perspective in ways that build confidence and trust throughout the organization

As a leader, it is easy for me to forget that I have the benefit of a unique perspective; not everyone sees what I see. It is both a matter of position and ability, vantage point and equipment, sightlines and skill. Good leaders remember that they have unique perspective and share it well.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Networks and Structures

I recently heard Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, reflect on a September 2008 article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review about fostering collective creativity. One of the key quotes from the interview went something like this, “we need people at Pixar to recognize that we are highly organized, but the organization structure and the communication structure are two different things.” I downloaded the article; here’s how he stated it in print: “Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. This means recognizing that the decision-making hierarchy and communication structure in organizations are two different things.”

I think this is something that I’ve always understood, but I know I will do well to better adopt and propagate this key concept. Organization structures and communication networks need to both be leveraged to their maximum potential in collective creativity and decision making.

The skilled leader will keep both the structures and the networks in harmonious tension. It is easy to err by failing on either side.

In my experience, we don’t need to do anything to create the communication networks; people talk. Our task is really to better acknowledge the networks and leverage them to their maximum potential; we can do more to enable the networks. Managers err when we build a culture that causes the networks to go underground, failing to acknowledge and encourage open communication. The extremes, with awful consequences, are those that attempt to forbid or punish open communication.

The opposite error is to fail to acknowledge the organization structure for decision making. We commonly forget that an open communication network does not negate what Catmull calls a “decision-making hierarchy.” Short circuiting, or even the perception of short circuiting, an organization structure generally results in chaos that includes poor decision making, bruised relationships, and damaged communication networks.

For a while now, we have adopted a vernacular for three stages of decision making:

  • discussion,
  • deliberation, and
  • decision.

I think it is helpful to think of these ideas in a simple matrix:

Collective creativity and sound decision making generally is best served by open discussion that may or may not involve the organizational structure. This is the early stage in the process characterized by brainstorming, floating of ideas, and what I often call swirl.

Deliberation ought to involve the networks and must consider the structure. This is the stage when operable plans come together. Productive deliberation should reflect the work of networks, and consider the structure in such a way that it results in a proposal that is actionable by the structure.

Decision, then, should be well informed by the networks via the previous stages, but entrusted to the organizational structure. The best decisions will include a feedback loop that demonstrates the value of the networks, especially when there is respectful disagreement.

If only it were this simple. Models like these are easily thrown by distrust and insecurity. Those in the communication networks may not be able to trust the organizational structure, even when open communication is enabled and thoroughly considered. Those in decision-making hierarchies may be so insecure that open communication is threatening, discouraged or disregarded. Then there are the added complications that might include legal constraints, confidentiality issues, and the various competing goals and perspectives of all involved. Nevertheless, sometimes a simple model like this helps, even in such complexities.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Can I Get an Amen?

I was talking with friends a few days ago about the use of various media technologies in our church worship services. Several of us saw news coverage on how Mars Hill Church encourages twittering during services. They are providing another way for people to reflect on their worship experience, live, to an audience that includes friends, church leadership, and even extends far beyond the walls of the sanctuary. In most churches, worshipers are routinely told to turn off phones; at #MHC they are encouraging folk to turn them on and use them.

We talked about how it might be cool if people could use a mobile device to talk to us during the sermon. Twittering is cool, but not everyone twitters (especially at my church), and it would take a little effort to set up a system to view twitters from the pulpit.

So I published my mobile number in the Sunday morning bulletin this morning and proposed an experiment.

I’ve always been a fairly avid, early adopter of technology. When I was my sons’ age, the first home computers were hitting the market. I started to program on TRS-80s, Apple IIs, and Commodore 64s. I’ve been hooked ever since.

I get a little edgy when I’m not connected. My iPhone is always on and with me. I monitor my email constantly as well as Facebook, voice mail, and text messages (and, yes, I'm paying attention to Twitter again @dtneary). I pride myself in being pretty easy to get a hold of, by just about any means. Many have noticed that I’m generally not still very long before I take a glance at the screen on my iPhone.

Earlier this week, Laurie got on my case a bit for fussing with my iPhone while listening to a speaker; she thought I wasn’t paying attention. Truth is, I was really paying attention. While listening to the guy deliver his talk, I was:

Folk who attend my church are connected too. Looking up things on their mobile devices, even occasionally bringing a laptop… nobody is freaked out by appropriate use of technology, even in our “traditional” church. As long as the gear isn’t distracting, it is welcomed.

So… with all of that said, here’s the experiment. I thought it might be cool if there was a way people could communicate with me during the sermon. What if folk were able to say “good point” or “you’re losing me” while I’m talking?

Some, of course, are happy to just shout out stuff like that… but for those who might want to try a more sophisticated approach, I invited them to send me a text.

They did, and I was able to read the feedback, in real time on my iPhone, without it being a distraction. Most were variations on “hey, this is cool, I’m texting the pastor while he’s talking,” but some were insightful, and helped me know that I was landing the points I was trying to make.

The response I received from people after the service was all enthusiastically positive. Even for those who didn’t take advantage of the technology, the idea that they could seemed to be meaningful.

I think I will keep encouraging this sort of thing, at least for the few weeks ahead. Stay tuned and I’ll give readers an update on whether we find this to be a meaningful practice, or just a gimmick.

You can hear how I set it up with our congregation this morning at

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

You Can’t Steer a Parked Truck

One of my guiding maxims has been, “you can’t steer a parked truck.”

The picture that comes to mind is one of me and my brother on Old 29. When Randy and I were growing up, our Dad (Tom) served as a volunteer firefighter. So, from time to time, we had the enormous privilege of hanging out at the fire station. Most of the equipment was off limits, of course, but we were occasionally allowed on Old 29… a restored, antique fire engine that was used for parades and community events. (There’s a picture posted of Engine 29 at

We could spend hours bouncing on the black leather seats and cranking on the large, wooden steering wheel as we raced to imaginary emergencies. In our minds we were Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto aboard Squad 51; lives were at peril and relied on our swift arrival. It was great fun!

The cranking on the steering wheel had no real impact, but only aided our imaginations. No matter how hard we tugged, our efforts didn’t move the truck an inch. Furthermore, these childhood “driving” experiences caused me to wonder, “Just how strong will I have to become to drive a truck like this?” Try as I might, I couldn’t get the truck tires to swivel. Only later would I realize that in order to have any hope of turning the wheels, the truck need to first start moving.

I’ve translated this little maxim into a bias towards action. Planning is vitally important, but it takes movement to get things done. Although there is a certain amount of gratification of “bouncing on the seat” and imagining how the plans and resources at my disposal might accomplish a goal, the engine needs to be started and the wheels need to start rolling before we can actually begin to steer into any accomplishment.

Today I’m reminded that God can’t steer the parked truck of my life either. Sure, He speaks to me and molds me in times of still quietness. But in order for Him to accomplish much through me, I need to be moving. I’ve have especially found that I need to be moving in order for Him to accomplish the things He has planned for me to do that I don’t yet know anything about.

For example, I took a day-long road trip across our State last month with one good plan and goal in mind. Looking in my rearview mirror, it now appears that the trip accomplished at least three good things… none directly associated with my original plan (which I still think will be accomplished as well). I would have rather stayed in the office that day, and probably could have made some progress towards my original goal by making a few phone calls. But it appears that God needed the truck of my life to roll across the state so that He could steer me into opportunities that I was not yet aware.

I think that it is natural for us to, especially when in doubt, choose stasis; rather than risk failing with an incomplete plan, we sit still far too long. Let’s face it; our plans are always incomplete because we simply can’t account for every eventuality. So let’s adopt a bias toward action and remember that we, and even God, can’t steer a parked truck.