Quality and quantity

You’ve probably heard the line. Parents excuse a lack of quantity time with their kids by falling back on the axiom that it can be replaced by quality time. It’s just not true, right? I believe it can be true from a team perspective.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how best to build community and trust, particularly in distributed teams. When Wycliffe USA went through a process of closing down satellite offices to integrate staff into national strategies, this was a big topic of discussion. How do you create a “virtual water cooler”? I resisted most of the easy answers like technology or social media as incomplete. They help fill in the gap, but they don’t replace an communal work setting. Almost three years later, a theory is finally coagulating for me.

Trust is developed in a team or community best either through quantity OR quality. The obvious path is through a quantity of time and common experience. Most of our friendships are built this way. Well, that same trust can be established through a single, brief, intense experience. It doesn’t happen through retreats that try to distill a quantity approach into a concentrate. Fun and interaction doesn’t build that level of trust. Meetings certainly don’t.

On the other hand, an intense experience does. Think of people who go through a crisis together. It establishes a point of reference, a set of inside stories, and a sense of accomplishment. For instance, the connection my wife and I have with neighbors who went through three hurricanes in 2004. The bond shared by Wycliffe staff who went through Jungle Camp or Pacific Orientation Course experiences when they were heading overseas in years gone by. For me, it was the 4-week interview process Wycliffe USA was using in 1997. Last week, I shared a 13-year-old inside joke via Skype with one of those fellow interviewees now living in Vanuatu.

Let me take a detour for a minute. In my experience, churches that have stagnated or are shrinking are churches who have grown inwardly-focused. It may be counterintuitive, but the way to grow is to look outside yourself. For starters, people are drawn to a mission. They’re drawn to vision. They’re drawn to a cause. The way to turn around a negative trend is not to focus entirely inward — though there may well be internal issues that need addressing — but to return to the mission you exist for. Okay, hold onto that thought.

Here’s my theory: the best way to build trust and community is through quality, and the best way to establish quality is to look outside yourself. Instead of bringing a team together to do a ropes course or play paintball, why not get your team to serve together for a day building a house with Habitat for Humanity? Instead of trying to gauge the quality of new staff by watching them in a classroom setting for four weeks, why not work alongside them? You want to build common experience? You want to build trust? You want to assess someone’s cross-cultural ability or servant heart? Spend a few days volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse in Galveston, Texas after a hurricane, sleeping on a gym floor and interacting with a dazed, hurting community.

As you look outside yourself, you might even make a difference in someone else’s life. Now, that’s quality. You’ll share that experience for decades.

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Romans 12 – criticism part II

My pastor, Chan Kilgore, once said that people never build monuments to critics. Is that really true? When he said it, I immediately thought of a lot of the figures in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Payne and Paul Revere were pretty serious critics. But there’s a difference between protesters who take potshots and protesters who do something about their beliefs. And victors always get to define the terms. Instead of “critic” and “traitor,” we in the United States prefer “forefather” and “patriarch.”

The question I want to consider is: why should a leader bless those who persecute him? Verse 20 gives one answer: to heap “burning coals” on them. It seems to me that alone could serve as a nasty motivation for “kindness.” But is that what this passage is about? Of course, the Bible preaches a countercultural message: seek genuine blessing for your critics. Why?

Point number 2: critics are essential in the life of a leader. Many gurus have written about the inability of senior leaders to get accurate assessments; candor is inversely proportional to level of position. Therefore, if a leader can receive it, the poignant commentary of a critic is essential because of his immunity to persuasion. He provides that “alternative” viewpoint we need so much.

I have a challenge for you. Next time you’re persecuted, ask yourself, “What if they’re right?” It could cast some light onto your blind spots.

An Old Testament example takes it one step further. In 2 Samuel 16, David’s son Absalom has taken the throne by force, and David is forced to flee from Jerusalem. While David is at a low point, an opportunistic descendant of David’s predecessor begins throwing stones and verbal lobs, claiming that David is getting a taste of his own medicine. David’s men want vengeance, but he rebukes them:

My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.

David shows incredible restraint, perspective and confidence in God’s Sovereignty. I think we’d all do well as leaders to respond the same way. What if God has given you a critic for a specific purpose? If you could see criticis that way, wouldn’t you pray for them, seek to bless them tangibly and work to overcome them by doing what’s right?

Lest we idolize David too much, let’s look at the rest of the story in 1 Kings 2:8-9. Years later, when David gives his final instructions to another son who is taking the throne legitimately, he admits that Shimei stuck in his craw. David tells Solomon,

I swore by the Lord that I would not kill him. But that oath does not make him innocent. You are a wise man, and you will know how to arrange a bloody death for him.

Don’t we wish! If only we could all keep our hands clean and leave it to our sons to clean up for us. Not sure how to respond to that one. It certainly speaks to the deep, irreversable pain a critic can bring to a king. It’s easy to do the right thing for a while, but difficult to let go of the feelings surrounding the experience.

The future is coming!

“Hurry, everybody! Hide! The future is coming!”

I think my three-year-old daughter summed up the way a lot of people feel about the future. Time to put our heads in the sand. Maybe it’ll go away.

I’m really enjoying the premise of the new show, FlashForward — the idea that everyone on the planet gets a two-minute glimpse of their future six months ahead. For some, this glimpse gives them hope. For others, it’s agonizing. As the season moves ahead, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show tackles ideas like free will, our ability to control our destiny and our inherent brokenness. I’m quite sure I’ll be disappointed, but I might also be pleasantly delighted at the truth the show exposes.

Yesterday morning I led Wycliffe USA’s leaders in a discussion on succession planning. One point I made is that you can’t anticipate the leadership needs of an organization or department by looking at today’s leader. The tendency if you do that is either to seek a clone to succeed an incumbent or rather to seek a reaction to the incumbent — someone who has strengths where the incumbent is weak. Unfortunately, the present is a bad starting place for succession planning. You have to force yourself into an assessment of the organization and an assessment of future trends that then defines the leadership needs of an organization or department. Where are the challenges and opportunities going to be? Who can take advantage and lead us in that reality?

The future is coming. Are you the kind of person who sticks your head in the sand, or one who wishes you could see around corners? Are you excited or depressed about what you see?