Taming the Bureaucracy Beast

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The church needs innovation, experimentation and risk taking.  The church has bureaucracy; inactivity in the name of good order and process. Senseless bureaucracy keeps us endlessly mired in reporting, approval seeking and communication. We end up with repetitive meetings, multiple levels of approval, over-reliance on procedure, and postponed decision making until everyone is informed and happy.  What would it take to free ourselves from all of this and just get things done?


Too Much of a Good Thing

In the late 1980’s Zebra Mussels found their way into the Great Lakes. A few Zebra Mussels are healthy for a fresh water ecosystem. They filter the water and reduce the overgrowth of algae. They produce clear water and facilitate healthier conditions for bottom dwellers.

image controlsUnfortunately, Zebra Mussels also feed voraciously and reproduce rapidly. Instead of gently cleaning up the Great Lakes waterways, the mussels over-proliferated and destroyed too much algae, threatening wild fish habitats.  They also clogged fresh water intake valves and filtration processes that human communities around the Great Lakes depend upon to thrive.

Congregational systems are like the Great Lakes ecosystem in this analogy. A few good procedures and carefully constructed decision making rules will produce transparency and generate healthy representation. Good policy keeps us from running off the deep end in pursuit of ideas that are not a good fit for us.  However, when process and procedure over-proliferate, we end up with clogged decision making. Innovation and risk taking take a back seat to sustaining good order.

The good news is that there are things we can do right now to tame the bureaucracy beast and restore a healthier balance between order and innovation.

Know what you seek to accomplish:

Bureaucracy thrives when process takes precedent over outcomes. When communication, shared decision making, and keeping people happy become the outcome, we end up with stagnation and clogged intake valves.

We begin unclogging by naming the specific changed conditions we are trying to produce in mission and ministry. This requires naming the new learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning that fulfilling your mission requires. These are your outcomes.

Outcomes are the not the same thing as outputs. Outputs are the direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs indicate if a service was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of constituents served, classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged.  

When we are unclear about outcomes, we often chase outputs. Chasing outputs without clarity about outcomes promotes unhelpful busyness and feeds the bureaucracy beast.

 

Eliminate Liaisons

Congregational governance systems ensure representation, and the primary way we have pursued representation is through liaison roles.  We select leaders on the basis of their ability to represent the voice of a specific constituency: the choir, the youth, the women, or the daycare. The liaison is expected to attend all board meetings, as well as any committee or team meetings that impact her constituency group. Her job, in addition to representing the best interest of her constituency group, is to ensure that important information from the board meeting is carried over to the committee meeting, and vice versa.

There are several things wrong with liaison roles. First, liaison roles elevate communication and decision making over action. A liaison may be expected to attend three to four meetings per month so that her constituency group is appropriately informed and represented everywhere that a decision might be made. Volunteers use up all of their available time attending meetings, without actually engaging in any hands on ministry. It’s exhausting for the volunteer and the governance system. In this age of digital communication there are far better ways of sharing important information than requiring a person to sit in endless meetings, in case their viewpoint is required.

The second problem with liaison roles is that they don’t promote strategic thinking on behalf of the whole. They certainly encourage debate: my group needs this, your group wants that. A room full of designated liaisons acting in the best interest of their constituent groups won’t necessarily reach a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. They are likely to make decisions that serve the needs of the constituency with the most outspoken liaison.

What if, instead of appointing liaisons, we assemble smaller bodies of decision makers who act on behalf of the whole? We expect them to make informed decisions and communicate as needed with the appropriate constituencies of the church. This requires more intentionality when forming agendas, to make certain that the right people (the staff member or committee chairperson) are in the room when a decision is being considered. This would free us up to make decisions more flexibly, without deferring decisions back to committees or task forces for further consideration before a decision is authorized.

 

Design an Experiment

Some bureaucracy stems from the fact that we don’t want anyone to be surprised or upset about a decision that is under consideration. We postpone decision making until every voice is heard and until everyone is happily on board. This squelches innovation. Nothing happens until we all agree.

Next time you find yourself in a meeting where the group wants to postpone a decision, why not encourage the birth of an experiment? If the group isn’t comfortable approving a new giant step, figure out how to make it a baby step that everyone can learn from.

Bureaucratic systems are built to support “Ready, Aim, Fire!” mentality. Bureaucracy seeks absolute clarity and consensus before allowing action, so that errors are not made.

In this era of continuous change, we don’t have the luxury of moving ponderously. We need to act more quickly, embracing more of a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach to decision making.  We ready ourselves to take a step that is reasonable. We pull the trigger and move ahead with an experiment that will allow us to learn something. The experiment has to be appropriate in scope so that failure won’t be devastating. We learn from the experiment and refine our next steps, postponing acts of authorization until we have learned what we need to know.

Bureaucracy in a congregation is not inevitable. We don’t have to succumb to overgrown systems of communication, decision making and approval. We don’t have to wait for a major overhaul of our governance system from the denomination. We can begin right here, right now to streamline our approach and allow more innovation.

Acting on on Our Plans

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

In the world of congregations we are good at planning and doing. We enjoy thinking great thoughts and crafting lofty ministry ideals. We are fair at experimenting with our ideas, and taking tentative steps in the direction of our plans. We are great at running programs, running programs, and running more programs.

However, we are not good at learning from our mistakes, making course corrections, and fully implementing our intentions. We avoid evaluation and accountability. Consequently, we fail in our intentional change efforts and fall back into the status quo.

We could learn something from the discipline of Management, which has long embraced the plan-do-check-act process (also known as the Deming cycle), as a way of managing change and promoting continuous improvement. The four phases in the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle involve:

  • Plan: Identifying and analyzing the situation. Setting a goal for the future.
  • Do: Developing and testing potential approaches.
  • Check: Measuring how effective the approach was, and analyzing whether it could be improved in any way
  • Act: Implementing the improved approach fully.PDCA-250

Congregations feel most comfortable on the top half of the cycle. We are allergic to the reflection, evaluation and accountability required to improve and complete implementation. We attribute our difficulties in completing the cycle to a variety of issues including: lack of clarity about priorities, short attention spans, conflict avoidance, uncommitted volunteers, inadequate resources, and frequent leadership turnover.

The net result is an endless treadmill of plan-do-plan-do-plan-do that exhausts church leaders and fails to produce meaningful change. It does not have to be this way. Here are five intentional things that you can do to quit being “that” church, and to start being a church that learns from its mistakes and acts on its plans.

Five Things You Can Do

  1. Limit your Plans.

Every congregation is limited in energy and resources. You need to focus your efforts on the one or two big plans that will make the biggest difference in the right direction for your congregation.

If you establish more than one or two areas of growth, you are basically telling your staff and volunteers that they can work on whatever feels good in the moment, without impact. You need to be clear about a few priorities if you want to get better at learning and implementation.

  1. Name the Metrics (or Observable Behaviors).

How will you know when you have arrived? What new behaviors will you witness, or what old behaviors will disappear?

We improve our odds of learning and acting when we know how to evaluate our efforts: changes in attendance patterns, giving, participation, service touch points, new members, new disciples, an increase in the use of personal spiritual disciplines, more people sharing their faith stories, etc.

  1. Clarify the Work of the Board vs. the Work of the Staff.

Generally speaking, the governing board is responsible for naming the larger priorities and outcomes that you are pursuing as a congregation, naming the metrics of evaluation, and allocating resources. The board also establishes policies that determine who is authorized to do what and with what limitations.

The staff team leads the day-to-day efforts related to experimentation and implementation, with the support and involvement of appropriate ministry teams and committees.

The board and staff work together to check in, evaluate progress and establish course corrections.

When we are clear about who does what, there is a better chance that we will engage the plan.

  1. Create a Calendar of Check-in and Evaluation

Intentionality is everything when it comes to learning and acting. Unfortunately, most congregations prepare meeting agendas in a very reactive manner. The work of the day is based on the felt needs of the moment, or the problems that seem most pressing.

Alternatively, why not create an annual calendar of meetings, (for both board and staff) that covers the full plan-do-check-act cycle. Determine when the new strategic priorities of the congregation must be named by the board each year. Schedule the date by which staff must set their performance goals with their supervisors, in accordance with the new priorities. Name the month in which the board will allocate resources in accordance with the plan. Schedule an annual performance review process (with board and staff coming together to evaluate ministry areas, and supervisors evaluating the performance of staff members.)

  1. Celebrate Success

The busyness of congregational life often precludes real clarity about when something is finished. Take time to notice and celebrate when a plan has actually been accomplished (regardless of its overall success). This will help to create a culture in which people learn to finish what has been planned.

Imagine for a moment the impact that your congregation could have in the world, if it actually learned from its mistakes and implemented the plans it made. With a few intentional practices, you could become that congregation.

 

 

If-Then Plans

Friday, April 25th, 2014

The problem with most planning is that people simply don’t do what they have declared they want to do. There is a goal setting technique that claims a 300% increase in the likelihood of goal attainment. It is called the if-then plan.

if-this-then-that-red

Heidi Grant Halvorson, the associate director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center, wrote a featured article on the topic in the current Harvard Business Review, and in a recent issue of Fast Company.

Let’s look at how it works, and explore how we might work with it in congregational contexts.

If-then planning works by building contingencies into our neurological wiring. If ‘x’ (a condition) occurs, then I will engage in ‘y’ (a specific action). This very specific form of planning improves individual and group performance by sharpening focus and by prompting members to carry out agreed upon activities in a timely manner. It’s about creating instant new habits.

The problem with most goal setting is that the goals are stated very broadly. Many goal statements are not much more than a statement of intention.

    We will improve communication within our staff team.

The difficulty with a broad statement of intent is that people rarely know what they are actually supposed to do to impact the condition, and even if they do know, they often don’t deliver.

If-then planning creates an explicit link between our intention and a desired behavior that is likely to produce the intended state. It creates a clear trigger for action.

If we have reached the end of a program staff meeting, then we will stop to consider what information from our meeting needs to be communicated to the admin staff, and how that information will be delivered.

• If it is Tuesday afternoon at 4 pm, then we will have an all staff gathering around the water cooler, where our head of staff will provide a 5 minute update on the decisions made in the Executive Team Meeting that impact the rest of us.

The language may feel artificial and forced, but the tasks and the time frames are clear, which makes it more likely that people will engage the behaviors.

Halvorson recommends a four step process to create your if-then trigger statements.

1. Establish the broad goal.

    The work schedule of all staff will be transparent, so that those with a legitimate need to find staff are able to reach them.

2. Break the goal down into specific, concrete subgoals.

    a. Each staff member communicates their expected calendar of meetings/events for the upcoming week.

    b. Staff members communicate when they are on campus and off campus.

    c. Staff members working off campus communicate their availability for contact when off campus, and their expected time of return.

3. Identify detailed actions-and who, what, when and where-for reaching each subgoal.

    a. Each staff member updates a shared online calendar on Tuesday morning, indicating their expected schedule of meeting & activities, both on and off campus, for the next seven days.

    b. The receptionist oversees a color coded magnetic board that hangs next to the church office door. Each staff member moves their magnet to indicate their presence or absence from the building.

    c. Each staff member completes a pink slip when they go off campus during the work day. The slip is handed to the receptionist. The slip indicates whether the staff member will be reachable during their absence from the building, how they may be contacted if needed, and when they are expected to return.

4. Create if-then plans that trigger the actions.

    a. If it is Tuesday morning at 9:00 A.M., then staff will update their online calendar for the upcoming week.

    b. If a staff member is leaving the building, then they will come to the office on their way out of the building, to move their magnet to “out” on the board, and to turn a pink slip into the receptionist.

    c. If a staff member is entering the building, then they will first stop by the office to move their magnet to “in” on the board.

That’s the essence of an if-then plan. Give it a try on one of your tough behavioral challenges and let me know how it works for you!

Myth Busters-Supervision

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Our unstated and unexamined assumptions about supervision prevent us from being more effective in the role of supervisor.

Myth #1: If I could just get the right people on my team, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time supervising them.

The Truth: If you lead a congregation with more than 400 people in average weekend attendance, then you will be spending at least one third of your time on the task of supervision. You have a choice. You can either spend that time squelching the chaos caused by your under-performer, or you can spend your time actively setting up a performance management system to align the collective energies of the entire staff team. Either way, you WILL spend about a third of your time on supervision.

Supervision is performance management, not people management. Supervision is NOT about making people do the work that you want them to do. Supervision IS about aligning the resources and energy of each staff member in pursuit of a common goal or mission. This means that you should be spending your time setting expectations, providing ongoing feedback, and aligning the energies of all your workers, not simply cajoling your under-performers to step it up. Our best workers should receive at least as much attention, if not more attention, than our problem employees.

Good performance management takes time. It’s not something that you “get out of the way” so that you can get back to the real work of ministry. Supervision is ministry.

mythbusters-final2Myth #2: It is too late to introduce accountability! If I have an employee on my staff that has been under-performing for a long period of time, without correction, then there isn’t anything that I can do to fix the problem. I just have to wait this one out, especially if I inherited the problem from someone else.

The Truth: It is never too late to invite accountability into an employment relationship. Righting an employment relationship begins with clarifying expectations and then providing ongoing feedback. Every member of your staff team should have three clearly defined sets of expectations for their role.

1. 8-10 essential functions of the job (these describe the basic duties and tasks of the position.)
2. 8-10 core competencies of the job (these describe the behavioral attributes, characteristics and skills that you expect the employee to demonstrate as they engage the essential functions.)
3. 2-3 performance goals (these describe the growing edge, or focus of the role for the current performance cycle; these align the energies of the staff member with the overall goals of the congregation.)

Ongoing feedback should include a regular (weekly, or bi-weekly) one on one conversation between the employee and their supervisor to establish priorities, clarify expectations and provide feedback on the basic expectations. This should be augmented with a quarterly goals update and an annual performance review.

Problem employees will often step it up once the expectations become clearer; or they will choose to leave because they are uncomfortable with the increased accountability. Either way, it’s never too late.

Myth #3: Every employee is redeemable and deserves another chance.

The Truth: All of the people on our staff team are the beloved in the eyes of God, but not all of our employment relationships are redeemable.

Once we have appropriately defined the expectations of the employment relationship, and provided ongoing feedback, with invitations to step up to our expectations, then we have done our part. If the employee demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to satisfy the basic expectations of the employment relationship over time, then the employment relationship should be brought to an end.

Myth #4: A good supervisor should be able to create a good ending for both the employee and the congregation.

The Truth: You cannot control how a terminated employee leaves your system. You cannot control how congregants will respond to the departure. You can create an open and transparent process, and you can invite healthy behaviors from the departing employee and from your congregants, but you cannot control what any of them actually do!

You best defense in a difficult employee termination process is a good offense. Gather a group of healthy leaders about you. Equip each leader with a transparent and consistent message that is appropriate, given the situation. And then, stand firm and non-anxious and let the disequilibrium work its way out of your system. You cannot control what happens, you can only respond to what happens with equanimity of mindfulness and heart.

You can learn more about replacing myth with good sound principles of supervision in, “When Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Congregations”

Metrics vs. Evidence

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

“When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get [measurable] results with.”-Parker Palmer (on Effectiveness vs. Faithfulness)

I worked this week with a group of 75 United Methodist leaders in Kansas. At one point our conversation turned towards goal setting, and particularly to the importance of naming outcomes and metrics. I argued that we must name what we are seeking to do or become, and we must name appropriate metrics to evaluate our progress. Otherwise, we won’t see much change or the right kind of change.

This has always been a tricky conversation to have with clergy leaders, but it is an especially hot button topic these days. So many congregations are experiencing numerical plateaus, or they are in free fall around membership, attendance and giving patterns. Denominational leaders (or congregants) are demanding measurable growth goals in response, and many congregational leaders feel powerless to meet what feel like artificial and misplaced expectations.

The response from clergy leaders is advocacy for other forms of growth that they see as more important than numerical growth. These leaders posture that we ought to be more concerned with goals around faith formation, biblical knowledge, deepening spiritual practices, fostering faith sharing and growing social justice awareness. These agendas, they argue, are not necessarily measurable and they may not result in church growth, but they are more indicative of congregational vitality.

I am rather suspicious about both sides of the debate. I agree that healthy congregations are generally growing congregations, by some measurable objective. Many who appear to resist metrics strike me as change resistant and fearful of accountability. On the other hand, I am among the first to argue that attendance and budgets are not our best indicators of congregational health and vitality. They are much too limited in scope and don’t take into account the cultural shifts we are seeing around how people participate in the life of their congregations. So, where are we to go with this debate?

This week a wise leader in our midst told us that he and his congregation have dropped the language of metrics from their vocabulary all together. Instead, they are investing themselves in naming the evidence that will indicate success in their change efforts. They are working to describe the observable behaviors that will signal success in their “softer” growth initiatives. They are not fearful of accountability, they embrace it, but they are committed to talking about and measuring evidence that matters to their mission.

This week I also ran across a video of Parker Palmer discussing the difference between effectiveness and faithfulness. It seems to be circulating the web in honor of his 75th birthday. Palmer says, “When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get results with.”

We are living in a chapter of Church history that requires bold and audacious leadership. We can’t afford to waste our energy on small and insignificant work that is constrained by a misplaced interest in measuring the wrong results.

Watch the video and then weigh in on this question: How would a shift away from measuring effectiveness, and a shift towards measuring faithfulness, change the current conversation around congregational metrics?