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.

Part III: Young leaders live in the world of story

Third, young leaders live in the world of story. They are less concerned with numbers and statistics than in the emotional pull of a good story. They want to pick out the individual from the masses and put a face on the issues at hand. Statistics don’t motivate them; testimonials and parables speak their language.

Taking this further, these young leaders are wary of statistics. Maybe it’s that deep-seated skepticism. After all, you can find statistics to support any point you want to make. So if young leaders see phenomenal numbers coming out of a program, but a lack of good stories, they see red flags. They are far more willing — than most Boomers are comfortable with — to intuit from a handful of stories a trend and quicker to jump on that trend and ride it as early adopters. Sure, it’s risky. But it suits their style to value feeling, imagination and gut instinct.

While I’m on this point, let me get on my soapbox for a minute. I grate my teeth a little every time I hear someone say, “But that’s just anecdotal evidence!” “Anecdotal evidence”? That feels like an attempt by modernists to fit stories into a numeric, quantitative orientation. Let me suggest another name for it: “true stories.” We should be acknowledging the stories we hear as opportunities to see God moving. We need to find a way to make stories a key quality measurement. How? It’s difficult to make generalizations, but Lencioni makes the point in Three Signs of a Miserable Job that you can find ways to measure quality, such as a drivethrough guy measuring smiles and outright laughs as an indicator of a qualitative improvement. Surely there’s a way to count God sightings, or perhaps the absence of them.

What are your thoughts about using stories as a measure of success?