February 28, 2012

What's the appropriate pace of change?

As congregational leaders, you are undoubtedly aware of the need for significant changes in your church. After all, rising to the occasion, making critical decisions, and implementing positive changes in the face of challenge is what leadership is all about. And yet, in most places, leadership teams will frequently disagree about the extent of what must be changed and the appropriate pace for making these changes.

Recently, when I’ve found myself in a group that is discussing change, I’ve noticed that nearly everyone - myself included - will appeal to either core experiences and/or folk wisdom. We have all sorts of colorful phrases for helping us navigate these murky waters. These include sayings such as:
  • You just gotta rip the band-aid off
  • Slow and steady wins the race
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know
  • You better go big or go home
If these sayings are any indicator, it would appear that leaders must choose between two mutually exclusive, frequently alienating approaches. Those who opt for the slow and steady approach will be deemed as excessively timid, fearful of change, and too weak to make hard choices. Yet those who opt for sweeping changes are seen as too rash.
For this reason, I found it both surprising and refreshing to read the advice of one classic leadership text regarding the pace of change. In The Leadership Challenge, co-authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner advise leaders to forgo this either/or approach in favor of generating a steady stream of small wins. In the following quote, they note how this approach affects group dynamics:

Small wins produce results because they build personal and group commitment to a course of action...By working at finding all the little ways that people can succeed at doing things differently, effective leaders make people want to be involved and stay involved because they can see that what they are doing is making a difference. Small victories attract constituents, create momentum, and get people to remain on the path.

A key takeaway from their work is that leaders need to skillfully attend to how change builds or kills momentum. Slow and steady may not win the race, ultimately, if your group is trying to tackle an huge issue through monthly gatherings. At the same time, sweeping changes can be equally unproductive if its imposed on a dispirited team, a team that has ceased to believe in its own power to change anything at all. A steady stream of smaller victories helps to reverse that self-defeating narrative, building confidence, group cohesiveness, and momentum as new challenges arise.

I'd love to hear your thoughts based on your congregational context. Would this approach work for your leadership team and congregation?