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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Power of Experiments

I'm discussing the acronym for organizational change--RIPE.  Let's review.


One way to make organization change more palatable for folks is to propose it as a test or an experiment.  You can do this, when practical, by suggesting a pilot project for the change.  When I introduced small group spiritual discernment in a congregation, I could have rolled it out as an organization-wide initiative.  That would have required huge amounts of energy and likely would have failed for that reason alone.

Instead, I recruited a "turbo" or pilot group to have the experience first.  That test accomplished several things.  It required far less energy.  I could handpick the participants who would offer the greatest chance of success for the test.  I could work out the bugs before a larger roll-out.  I could build a cadre of cheerleaders for the initiative.  And as the experiment unfolded, I was training potential leaders for additional groups once the pilot experience was completed.

All of those benefits accrued to the project.  The pilot group spent a year in the experience, and then we were ready to launch a larger effort in the congregation.

Another way to introduce a test or experiment is to suggest a limited time frame for the test.  That time frame needs to be identified up front.  In addition, you need to specify an evaluation procedure and the benchmarks for measuring the success of the experiment.  Finally, you need to announce the time and manner for adopting or abandoning the test initiative as a permanent feature of the organization.

Sometimes congregations need to change their worship schedule.  This is a very big deal for many church folks.  When I have led congregations through that process, I have suggested that we try the alternative schedule for a year and then evaluate it.  In the church, a year is a good testing time for most large scale changes.  Church life has its seasons and its annual cycle.  What works at one time of the year may not work through the whole year.  Other organizations will have different natural test cycles.

In the life of the church, almost anything that becomes the "second annual" installment will become the norm.  We only have to do things a few times in order to believe that we've always done it that way.  On the one hand, this makes test periods very useful for easing into major changes.  On the other hand, make sure the change is something you as a leader really want.  Otherwise you might be stuck with a change that didn't work out so well.

Most organizational experiments are variations on these themes.

Is your group RIPE for a change?  The acronym is a good check list to make sure that you lead your group through the change with less conflict and more appreciation.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Importance of Precedents

An effective change process will begin with a clear and compelling rationale for considering making a change at all.  The process will encourage and create opportunities for input from as many stakeholders as possible.  That input process will be structured in such a way as to encourage and reward positive input.  The process will also tell stories from the organization's history that provide precedent narratives for proposed changes.

An effective leader needs to be the organization's best-informed historian.  Any organization that has been around for a while will have experienced a variety of changes.  With a little effort and imagination, the leader can find precedent narratives for almost any proposed change.  I spend much of my time in the church world, so that's where many of my examples can be found.

Most congregations have experienced changes in worship schedule at some point in history, and those changes are documented somewhere.  Most congregations have moved or built or both.  Congregations have successfully navigated changes in pastoral leadership.  Congregations have adopted new hymnals and constitutions and confirmation programs and fundraising strategies.  Most congregations have survived significant episodes of conflict...otherwise they wouldn't still be here.

With a bit of investigation, we can find precedents for almost any change.  Then as leaders, we can begin to tell precedent stories.  Those stories always begin in this way.  "This is a lot like the time when this congregation (fill in the event or change in question)..."

If you have folks who are the living memory of the organization, they can do this work for you.  Some of my most useful conversations have been with folks who let me prompt them in this way.  "We're considering (Change X, Y, or Z).  Do you remember a time when the congregation did something similar?  How did that go, and how did it turn out?"

We need to look for a couple of things in these precedent narratives.

One is the simple permission to consider a change at all.  We simply forget how many changes we have undergone in our personal and communal lives.  We remember everything through the lens of the present.  Things that seemed like radical innovations at the time are now experienced as always having been that way.  Our memories sort out the bad and keep the good.  So we lose touch with the struggles we experienced to get to this point in our lives.  We exaggerate future risks and minimize past headaches.

We also need to seek what Appreciate Inquiry practitioners call the "root causes of success."  As we think about these precedents, we have the opportunity with the benefit of hindsight to consider why the changes worked (assuming they did).  We can inquire as to whether those root causes continue to exist in the organization.  If they do, then the proposed change will seem much safer.  If they don't, then perhaps we can do something to replicate them--and the success itself.

Input is Important

I'm laying out the way that I think about productive organizational change.  Over the years I have learned and used the acronym, "RIPE," to keep my process and practice straight.  Here are the elements of the acronym.
  • R-Rationale
  • I-Input
  • P-Precedent
  • E-Experiment
In the previous post, I talked about "Rationale."  Now let's think together about "Input."

We know that input creates ownership.  This is true in terms of group process.  It is also true in terms of neuro-psychology.  When we contribute to anything, we are more likely to take ownership of that process or relationship or organization.  Sometimes this is referred to as the "endowment effect."  When we participate in or contribute to something, we endow it with value that it did not have previously.

There is no faster way to build ownership in an organization than to encourage, accept and incorporate input from people.  Think about when you have come to a new job.  When the folks already there begin to accept your input, you become part of the team.  More than that, you feel a genuine relationship and connection.  It's at that moment that the pronouns in your speech change from "you" and "yours" to "we" and "us" and "ours."  

If input is not accepted and incorporated to some recognizable degree, the new person will experience this as rejection.  Ownership will not be an option at that point.  In fact, the likely outcomes will be enmity and sabotage.

Now, is all input equal?  No, in fact you can and should structure input to focus on the positive and appreciative feedback.  This is one of the roots of the process called Appreciative Inquiry.  It is tempting for all of us to give input that is negative and critical.  That input may build ownership. But it won't build the organization.  When new people come to an organization, engage them in conversations that focus on the positive aspects of the group.  When you come to an organization as a change agent, learn how to use an appreciative approach to structure positive input.

Critical input tends to identify problems, affix blame and lower morale.  That input may be accurate, but it won't be productive.  Positive input identifies strengths, looks for solutions and raises enthusiasm.  As you seek input, reward the positive feedback and make it part of the story you tell about the organization.

That is, after all, the real goal of receiving input.  The goal is to hear and then shape a story of the organization or relationship that will lead to better life and greater effectiveness.  People are more likely to own and to celebrate a positive story--especially if they help to tell it.  And a positive story equips people to act with courage and hope.  Courage and hope are absolutely necessary if there is to be constructive and long-term change.

Positive input must be grounded in reality.  Every organization that still exists has in its history times when things were good and change was embraced.  These are the precedents that we seek in shaping a story that helps us to make constructive changes.  We will next look at the importance of precedent in any healthy change process.

Ripe for Change?

Organizational leaders are always agents of change.  We can make changes with intention and skill.  Or we can stumble into changes and find ourselves in a struggle.  Over the years I have found a simple acronym very helpful in thinking through change.  Healthy and effective change happens when the time is RIPE.

Have you ever bitten into a tomato that hadn't fully ripened?  We planted grape tomatoes in our little garden this summer.  I am color deficient in the red and green parts of the spectrum.  So as the tomatoes got close to ripe, I sometimes picked them too soon.  My eyes may have deceived me, but my taste buds were spot on.  Fruit picked too soon is bitter.  It needs to be fully ripe.  Fortunately it didn't take long for the really red tomatoes to hang next to the less ripe ones.  I can discern the difference when the options are side by side.

Ripe is always better (not much gets past me, does it?).  Here are the elements of the acronym.

  • R-Rationale
  • I-Input
  • P-Precedent
  • E-Experiment

R-Rationale: are there good and sufficient reasons for making a change?  

First, is it obvious to the stakeholders that things are not as they should be?  We who live inside the organization don't always do a good job of communicating to others how broken something might really be.  We don't like, for the most part, to deliver bad news.  We might understate the problem and then wonder why no one else is up in arms.  

So, take sufficient time to communicate that things are not as they should be.  The organization will resist this news.  Be prepared for that.  Try to communicate the bad news with a positive affect.  This is the beginning of the change conversation, not the end.  As you deliver the bad news, always assure folks that there is a way out of this situation.  There will be solutions to the problems.  This is not about about blame but rather about resolution.

Wait for the bad news to come back to you on the lips of leaders in some fashion.  If the organization does not own the bad news, there will be little openness to embracing possible changes.

Second, we also need to persuade people that a change can actually make things better.  We are a risk-averse species.  We believe that bad breath is better than no breath at all.  We will live with bad solutions unless we can see that something better might be on the horizon.  We live with the fear that we might make things worse in our efforts to improve things.

This brings us to the second letter of the acronym--Input.  In the process of Input, people can begin to develop possible solutions that will be better than the status quo.

More on that next time.

On to the Next Thing

On November 1, I begin my next interim assignment.  I will be interim pastor at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  The drive is about twenty-five minutes from our home at the edge of the Enchanted Forest here in Bellevue.  In the seventeen miles of that trip, I travel in three counties, two states and two synods!  Such is life on the edge (of the map).  We are looking forward to our time with the saints at Emanuel.  We are grateful for the welcome we have received from our new parishioners and from the Western Iowa Synod staff.  Special thanks go to Pastor Lorna Halaas, Assistant to the Bishop, for her prayers and support.

Here is the web page for Emanuel.  Worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. on Sundays.  Please come and share time with us.

We will remain in our home in Bellevue, enjoying our life and our neighbors (one of whom is pictured here).

October 31 will be our last day with the fine folks at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Syracuse, Nebraska.  It has been an honor and a privilege to serve in interim ministry with the saints at LMC.  We are grateful for the care and kindness we have received over these past fourteen months of mutual ministry.  

We will remember with special fondness the Bible studies and adult classes, the summer mission trip, confirmation classes and camp, and the chance to walk with this year's confirmands through their faith statement projects and confirmation.  We won't miss that one hundred mile round trip up and down Highway 50.  We wish our friends God's richest blessings in the months and years ahead.

LMC isn't quite finished with its interim journey.  The congregation is well-served by our fine Nebraska synod staff and will be in very good hands.  The congregation will not miss a beat, and the handover of pastoral care will be seamless.  I want to thank the Nebraska Synod staff for their care and support over these past few years.  Special thanks go to Connie Stover, Assistant to the Bishop, for her friendship, care and tireless work.  

For a while at least, we will live in one synod and serve in another.  Life never ceases to present new experiences.  So, on we go.  "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Can Anybody Govern?

Now that we have once again stepped back from the Federal Apocalypse, perhaps we can reflect a bit on "Conflict Resolution 101."

1.  Every position makes sense from the "inside" of that position.  People who hold positions on issues are doing so because such actions further their self interests.  We might attribute mental illness or instability to the other party, but unless there is an actual diagnosis, that sort of thinking is counterproductive.  I am more likely to make headway with my opponent if I assume that my opponent has a reasonable amount of rationality.  Then I might be able to understand the other position and make some progress toward a solution.

2.  Positions are not the same as interests.  Positions must be defended at all costs, and a change in position is very difficult to accomplish.  Interests are often hidden beneath the public positions.  For example, the opposing sides have positions on health care, debt ceilings, etc.  The real interest of many of the politicians was simply to send a message to constituents who really pay the bills come election time.  When the pain of the unresolved conflict began to outweigh the advantages of pursuing self-interest, then a solution was achieved.

3.  The spotlight makes deal-making nearly impossible.  We are suspicious--with good reason--of "back room" deals.  But very few real deals get made in the "front room."  Most deals are like sausage.  We might like most of the final product.  But it is not nearly as tasty if we know what actually goes into it.  When we insist that deals are made in the full glare of the public limelight, we will get bad deals.  When politicians are making such deals in the full public view, they are not interested in good deals.  They are interested in pleasing specific interest groups.

4.  When common ground does not exist, then it is time to seek higher ground.  Mediation is often described as the process of finding common ground--mutual self-interests that can lead to resolution of the dispute.  Often such common ground does not exist.  Then the disputants must find some higher principle or larger framework in order to resolve the issue.  In some of my mediation work that higher ground is "the best interests of the children" or "the mission of the gospel."  In the recent federal crisis, no higher ground was ever sought, much less found.  Thus our leaders continue in their inability to govern.

5.  You can be right or you can be happy.  In real life, you can rarely be both.  We finite humans do not have access to the one perspective on life that solves every issue.  We are not divine, no matter how often we act that way.  The sooner our leaders abandon their ideological idolatry and focus on the practical business of governing, the better off we will all be.  Government is indeed the art of the possible.  We who select our leaders need to demand productivity rather than purity.

6.  Winning is for suckers.  Winning may make a difference in games or in warfare.  I hope that most of life is neither.  Real life is lived in the middle, where compromise is the only real victory.  Making concessions to one another is the definition of progress in conflict resolution.  It is not the description of failure.

This is a democracy.  We get the government we demand.  Will we demand better?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Frame and Focus

I am reminded that gratitude is a function of focus.  Do I focus on what I have or what I have lost?  Do I focus on what I have received or what is missing?  For the most part, I don't get to choose what I have or don't have.  I do, however, get to choose where I focus.  Whatever gets my focused attention gets bigger.  What I choose to ignore gets smaller.

What is the difference between the Samaritan leper and the other nine?  Perhaps the other nine simply viewed their healing as the restoration of what was originally theirs.  As a species, we are loss-averse. We are highly sensitive to what has been taken from us.  We are far more sensitive to the threats of loss than we are to the possibilities of gain.

So we are more likely to see our blessings as simple restoration rather than positive addition.  We are more likely to see our blessings as a return to "zero" (the previous status quo) rather than as some positive addition to our lives.  When we see our blessings as restoration, we react with the attitude of entitlement.  Gratitude will not follow.  I think that may describe the responses (or the lack thereof) of the nine Jewish lepers.  They had been given back what was their property at some previous point in time.

It may be that the Samaritan felt no such sense of privileged entitlement.  So he was more likely to experience and express gratitude.  Where we focus makes a difference.  Deficits are not actionable. Deficits can only be grieved.  Assets can lead to action, to growth, to health and happiness.

How we frame our gifts is another factor in grateful living.  Most of us come to our blessings with a "Yes, but..." response.  Yes, that's all well and good that it's a wonderful day, but I have such significant losses and troubles in my life that I can't enjoy the day.  Yes, my life is pretty awesome in a lot of ways right now, but it's not what it was a year ago or five or ten--that time when things were just the way I wanted them to be (we can talk about memory as revisionist history another time).

Again, we are choosing both focus and frame.  If we frame everything in terms of previous losses, nothing will ever be good again.  If we expand our focus to include all the bad things as the borders of a good picture, then the picture becomes dark and sad.  None of this negative focus is written into the fabric of "Objective" experience.  We choose our frame and our focus moment by moment.

Will we make those choices consciously?  Will we choose a positive framework and a constructive focus?  Our happiness hinges in part on such moment by moment choices.  And this is not merely a construct of, for example, white male privilege.  Some of the happiest people I know from around the world are among the most impoverished.  They have learned to choose a positive frame and focus as a means of survival.

One thing that I have learned is that I must carefully choose the "size" of my frame as well as the direction of my focus.  When I am overwhelmed by the struggles of this life (a daily and sometimes hourly occurrence), I practice frame-narrowing.  What is the joy, the meaning, the purpose I can find in what I am doing right at this moment?  When I narrow the frame, I can find the hope I need to go on with the day.

As our AA friends might remind us, I strive to be where my hands are and not somewhere else.  There is plenty of time to reflect on bigger frames of reference when I am in a better frame of mind.  I can choose how big to make the picture and where to put my gaze.

Somehow, our Samaritan colleague in faith made those choices and found himself kneeling in gratitude at Jesus' feet.  I pray for the wisdom to do the same today.

Living Grateful

Gratitude is faith's first fruit.  Spoiler alert--that will be my theme for the weekend message!  And it is my theme for today.

The leper was the only one in Luke 17 who is commended for his faith.  That is because he is the only one who expresses gratitude.  This is, as Martin Luther might say, the First Commandment in action. Faith is more than the acknowledgment of God's existence.  It is the willingness to rely on God alone for all good things.  And the only healthy response to such goodness is gratitude.  As Luther says in his explanation of the Creed, therefore we ought to thank and praise, serve and obey God.  This is most certainly true.

When the leper returns to Jesus to give thanks, he acknowledges Jesus as the source of the good that has befallen him.  In a deeper sense than he may have known, he treats Jesus as God.  So Jesus commends his faith and sends him on his way.

Gratitude is a feeling put into action.  Today, I have the chance to live gratefully in a significant way.  I have been asked to be part of a re-accreditation conversation for the Bryan School of Nursing in Lincoln, Nebraska.  When my late first wife, Anne, was hospitalized at Bryan LGH East hospital, we were served in part by four student nurses from the Bryan School.  

All of the nursing staff, therapists and physicians were wonderful to us in a variety of ways.  But the nursing students were special to us.  Anne was their only patient, so they spent hours with us at her bedside.  We became acquainted with them quickly and deeply.  They told us that they learned a great deal from our care for Anne.  More than that, they told us that they learned a great deal from Anne as a courageous and determined participant in life.

When we prepared to take Anne home to die, the student nurses came to us one by one.  Each of them had tears in their eyes.  We had known them just ten days, but all of our lives were changed.  I think they are better nurses as a result of our time together.  And we are better people because of their care.

So I am honored to give thanks and to give back to the Bryan School.  We have been able to fund the education of some student nurses and future nurse educators with Anne's memorial money.  In fact, I was also honored to officiate at the wedding of one of those students not so long ago.  So the relationships have continued to some degree.  And gratitude is one of the ways that I am privileged to join the chapters of my life.  Brenda will be part of that conversation as well today.  Of all the people on earth, I often feel that I am the most fortunate.

Speaking our thanks is the beginning of gratitude.  Then living out our thanks in concrete ways is the real fullness of that gratitude.  In our readings this morning, we met the summary of this from Cicero: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."  This is most certainly true.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Wisdom of the Foreigner

"Was none found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:18).  Jesus comes upon ten lepers and heals them all.  Nine of the ten are Jews.  One is a Samaritan--a "foreigner" by Jewish standards.  The Samaritan is the only one who "returns" from his excited path toward the priest, kneels at Jesus' feet and offers words of thanks.

Jesus wonders at this behavior.  The one who is least likely to "get it" is the one who is grateful.  How can this be?

Could it be that the other nine felt entitled in some way to the healing they received?  It may not be that they were so sure of their own righteousness.  After all, they likely assumed that their leprosy was punishment for some kind of sin.  On the other hand, they certainly saw themselves as more deserving of healing than the Samaritan outcast.  In all likelihood, he was a leper among lepers, standing on the outside of the outsiders.  He knew that he was entitled to precisely...nothing.

What goes into the experience of gratitude?  A sense of entitlement to any degree will reduce the possibility of gratitude.  The more entitled we feel in this life, the more miserable we will be.  We can think our way through this.  Let's assume that we really are entitled to something--a good life and a decent living, for example.  Any drop off from that standard will be experienced as a loss.  Maintaining that standard will increase the levels of expectation and entitlement.  Then the potential for disappointment and grievance will increase even more.

When we think we deserve the good things of life, we are setting ourselves up for bitterness.  We are a loss-averse species and experience even imagined loss with great grief.

We should probably read this story from Luke in conjunction with the previous verses.  It is easy to read those verses about "worthless slaves" as bad news.  In fact, those verses are the counsel of gratitude.  Don't assume that you are deserving of any of the good things in this life.  All that we have is a gift in one way or another.  No one is really a "self-made" person.  Everything good comes from God alone.

Choosing that view of life is the express highway to happiness and contentment.  That view means choosing serving over self.  It means choosing humility over entitlement.  It means choosing gratitude over grievance.  That view of life entails "returning" to Jesus (another way to describe repentance).

How can the foreigner get this?  He is the only one in the bunch without any basis for feeling entitled, even if merely by comparison. That dawns on him and he returns to express his gratitude.  So he leaves blessed and healed in ways the others did not experience.  He leaves the happiest of them all.

Gratitude is always a choice.  It is a choice that produces real happiness every time.  Where do you anchor your entitlements?  How does life change for you if you see them as gifts today?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Forgiving God

Recently I overheard a question.  "How can I forgive God for this terrible thing that has happened to me?"  I have heard that question before, and I find it always puzzling.  I have wondered about forgiving lots of folks during a time of traumatic loss.  I have struggled with meaning and purpose and direction. But I must say that I did not find my way down the path of blaming God for my calamities.

Miroslav Volf reminds us that to forgive is first of all to accuse.  So to have the need to forgive God for my misfortunes means that I accuse God of wrongdoing.  We can try to explain our way around that one, but there is no other way to resolve it.  If God needs my forgiving, then God has done something wrong that needs my forgiveness.

I have no idea how the Divine Plan works.  I am routinely puzzled and even flummoxed by how things transpire.  That is true in terms of tragedy.  It is also true in terms of blessing (more on that later).  But if I thought that God at some points intended evil for me, then I would sigh and return in resignation to my days long ago of foolish atheism.

Martin Luther reminds us in his Large Catechism that to believe in God is to believe that God is good. That trust includes believing that all good comes from God and nothing evil comes from God.  If I believe that God exists and also believe that God is the author of my troubles, then why in the world would I have anything to do with such a god?  Such a god would be fully and finally unreliable.  Such a god would be the opposite of the God described in the Bible--the God of steadfast love.

I love the scene in the fine movie, Bruce Almighty.  Bruce Nolan has had enough setbacks (never mind his role in them).  Now he wants to have a less than cordial conversation with The Management. "Fine! The gloves are off, pal!" he shouts to the heavens.  "Come on! Let me see a little wrath.  Smite me, O mighty smiter!  You're the one who should be fired!  The only one around here not doing his job is you!"  Here is that clip, but I recommend buying the movie:

Later Bruce comes to understand that God and life don't really work that way.  I have struggled to accept what has happened to me at various points in my life.  I have longed to hold someone else responsible.  I have believed that blaming someone--even God--might be preferable to the damnable randomness that sin introduces into Creation.  But in the end, God doesn't need my forgiveness.  If God needs my forgiveness, that's a god not worthy my time or trust.

So I pray always for the gift of acceptance.  I pray that I may accept what comes my way.  That is as true of the blessings as it is of the tragedies.  But how many people ever wonder why good things happen to us?  That stuff we simply take for granted, and God rarely gets "extra credit" from us.  And then I pray for the gift of perspective.  I can't do anything with the deficits in my life--the losses, the tragedies, the setbacks--except to learn from them.  

I can, however, focus on the assets, the strengths, the blessings, the opportunities, that come my way. Reality is inscrutable.  I cannot change it very much.  But I can have all sorts of impact on how I see my life and what I do with it.

God is God.  God is good.  I am the one who needs forgiving.  And God never wonders about whether to forgive me or not.