First, break the rules

I hear Marcus Buckingham has a book with a name like that. I haven’t read it (yet), but it is on my list. The title came to mind as I was reading Deep Change, by Robert E. Quinn. Let me give some quick context and then give you a point from the book.

One thread for 2011 that I’m really going to enjoy following is the idea of RESET. The Mission Exchange is hosting a conference in Scottsdale at the end of September by that name, and I participated in a pre-conference RESET Dialogue session last Friday. Steve Moore’s goal is not to pull off a conference as much as facilitate a dialogue on the subject of Mission in the Context of Deep Change. An extremely relevant topic. Moore’s thoughts have been heavily influenced by Quinn’s book, along with Ramo’s Age of the Unthinkable, which I’ve blogged on in the past. With that context, here we go.

A group of executives in a large state government wanted to create a leadership development program built around the idea of transformational leadership. How could they develop public administrators who would take initiative as change agents in their organizations? They decided the best route was to look for what the Heath brothers would call “bright spots” and highlight these success stories in a series of videos. Their research began to unearth a number of individuals who led dramatic transformation within their organizations: a hospital with horrid conditions for patients, an office known for long lines and bad customer service, things like that.

Teams were sent to interview these leaders. Then the project came to an abrupt end. No videos could be made. Why? Because in each case, it appeared that in order to transform an ineffective organization into an effective one, laws needed to be broken. And how can a state teach its managers to break its own laws?

To be fair to Quinn, he’s not advocating breaking the law. His point is that leaders must take significant risks to challenge the rules, policies and procedures that become law within an organization. “To organize is to systematize, to make behavior predictable,” therefore organizations are built around systems. When an organization is growing, systems provide the stability for growth. When an organization stops growing, systems atrophy into rigid boxes.

Excellence, however, never lies within the boxes drawn in the past. To be excellent, the leaders have to step outside the safety net of the company’s regulations.

Deep change therefore brings to a head the conflict between management and leadership. If management is about making processes more efficient and standardized, and leadership in a context of change is about breaking rules, then there’s going to be a collision.

Leadership development gets awkward, then. How can an organization teach its managers to break its own laws?

The petrie dish for innovation

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?