Efficiency vs. learning

“Stop wasting water!” One of my pet peeves is when I’m busy at something, vaguely conscious that my kids are doing something in the bathroom and then suddenly realize that the water has been running a long, long time. I’m not sure why wasting water bugs me so much. Is it the cost or the environmental responsibility of living in a state with a draining aquifer? I clearly value efficiency when it comes to water. If you have any doubt, just look at my lawn.

I recognize my hypocrisy, however. My kids are simply doing the same thing I did when I was their age. There’s no way to explore without a little waste. I used to love pouring water from one vessel into another, inverting a glass and pushing trapped air beneath the surface, finding the best way to turn my hands into a cup to bring water up to my mouth, or watch greasy water flee from a drop of soap. Water is fascinating, and you don’t learn about it without wasting a little.

The older we get, the more we value efficiency at the expense of discovery, joy and innovation. Organizationally, the bigger we get, the more we value efficiency, too. We love the economies of scale that come with standardizing processes. And in so doing, we squelch innovation.

As leaders, how can we assure that doesn’t happen? First, allow room for dreaming. I recently read a colleague’s summary of Leadership Divided – What Emerging Leaders Need and What You Might be Missing, by Ron Carucci. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

The explosion of enterprise-wide technologies has fueled efficiency and standardization. A negative consequence, though, has been the tendency to approach challenges in terms of process compliance rather than allowing for dreaming. There exists a tension between standardization and innovation as a result. Incumbent leaders often view dreams in terms of precision rather than desire.

Of course, we know the tension that results when dreamers encounter one of these big, immovable objects. Too many  emerging leaders have given up on established businesses, churches or organizations and fled to start their own where they could dream, innovate and bring about the change they long for. But established organizations need dreamers and innovators lest we become dinosaurs.

What’s the solution? I think Carucci hits on a good start: “Dream first, set targets later.” I like that approach to planning. We should include a time for dreaming before getting down to process and rigid goal-setting. Leadership IQ wrote an article called, “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” in which they challenged the traditional view of goal-setting: to create goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. The data shows that there’s a better way to create goals that will be implemented. Make sure they’re HARD:

  • Heartfelt – My goals will enrich the lives of someone besides me — customers, the community, etc.
  • Animated – I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I accomplish my goals.
  • Required – My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  • Difficult – I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

Picture the end. How great it will feel. Leave my comfort zone. Not the traditional way we approach goals, but the territory of dreamers. Start with a vision of the future and then set targets toward making it reality.

Second, be sure to leave room in your business model for waste. Experimentation and learning are not always easy on the bottom line. For that matter, it’s almost always easier and more efficient to do things yourself than to pass on your knowledge. But a truly healthy organization is like a family. You have to be passing on and empowering the next generation. They’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to waste resources as they experiment. Then, one day, they’re going to make a discovery that we “adults” never saw. That’s the way with innovation.

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Understanding the times

This is one of my favorite leadership qualities. In times of vast discontinuous change, leaders who understand the times are as rare as they are valuable.

In the Old Testament, there are two references to people who understood the times (Esther 1:13, I Chron 12:32). All kings seem to have surrounded themselves with men who understood the times and knew the direction the king should go. Kings had an uneasy relationship with these “wise men,” sometimes choosing to follow their advice and sometimes going their own way. For instance, Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

I want to pick an earlier and more familiar example, however. Everyone remembers the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold into slavery by his brothers. After some fruitful years as a slave in Egypt, managing the household of his master efficiently, he’s railroaded and thrown in prison. Even there, God’s hand is on him, and he thrives, taking on responsibility. One day his opportunity for redemption finally comes in the form of a dream by the king. God gives him the ability to understand the meaning of the dream and to come up with a plan that will rescue Egypt, preserve Israel and make his boss really wealthy.

Joseph certainly understands the times. He knows there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of severe drought. He deploys his plan with efficiency and discipline. When the task of stockpiling gets too difficult, he doesn’t give up on collecting food; he gives up on counting. So, when the seven years of plenty end, Egypt and Joseph are in good shape. That’s where the story gets interesting.

Two years into the drought, everyone else’s worst-case scenarios have expired.

  • Genesis 45:6 says the famine has reached a critical stage for Joseph’s Canaan-based family by year two of the drought.
  • 47:17-20 records how Joseph bought all of the property of Egypt and Canaan with the grain he’d collected.
  • By 47:21, he owns all the people. He can then dictate terms under a rollover contract that lasts long after the famine ends.

But here’s the thing that caught my attention. In the years of plenty, no one but Joseph saw the drought ahead. Anyone who did plan ahead saved up a couple of years worth to get them through what would surely be a short-term decline. Joseph’s value came in his God-given ability to understand the times and know what to do.

Is there anyone who understands the times today? We have no context for the changes we’re going through. A global financial crisis has never happened before, so all the previous models just don’t apply. It’s obvious that old guidelines don’t cut it in 10%+ unemployment, unheard-of foreclosure rates and frozen credit. Eddie Gibbs, in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture, says:

It is evident in rapidly changing times that knowledge does not necessarily flow from experience. Yesterday’s solutions and procedures may not provide an adequate or appropriate response to present challenges. Hence, the biggest hurdles facing long-time leaders may not be in learning new insights and skills, but in unlearning what they consider to be tried and true and what thus provides them with a false sense of security.

My response is that God is still God in good times and bad. He was still God while Joseph fumed in prison. Our brothers and sisters in the non-Western church can testify that they still have hope, joy and faith when the economy simply doesn’t rebound. I think we have a lot to learn from them, whether it’s patience in endurance or a theology of suffering. Christianity thrives in difficult times… because we realize we need God!

I suggest we learn from Joseph to be faithful and do the little things even from exile, even from prison.

I suggest we leaders seek the God who does understand the times and occasionally chooses to disclose them to those who listen.

I suggest we try our best to be ready when opportunity happens, even in the darkest situations.

And I suggest we seek to help each other out, offering our best to fellow prisoners with little hope of reward.

You never know how God might choose to use these times, because he holds today, and he holds the future.