December 19, 2016

What a Transit Strike Can Teach Us About Experimenting

For two days in February 2014, workers on the London Underground went on strike, closing several subway stations and forcing an even larger number of commuters to scramble to find a new route to work. In a study published earlier this year, researchers pulled data from transit cards of commuters before, during, and after the strike. Using this information, they charted how many commuters had to change their routes to work around the station closures.

By necessity, many commuters had to alter their routes during the strike. Since we tend to be creatures of habit, one could reasonably assume that folks would go immediately back to their original route as soon as the strike was over. But that wasn’t the case.

A statistically significant portion of commuters kept on their new route. This was their new normal. The particular reasons for this change don’t matter so much as what it reveals about human beings: we often don’t experiment enough before settling on one solution.

Nothing about the system changed long-term, though some options within the system were removed for a time, forcing the commuters to experiment. Since nothing was added to the system, we can safely say that the final route (the route chosen to deal with the station closures) the ostensibly preferable route, already existed within this system. It simply needed to be discovered.

The study put it like this:

Our results also provide evidence on the inclination of individuals to experiment. After all, the new commute was already available pre-strike and could have been found beforehand through voluntary, as opposed to forced, experimentation.

How often do we miss preferable or, to borrow a word from the study, “optimal” solutions to the various problems we face in our parishes because we accepted the first workable solution we found? Pragmatism is good, but can be limiting.

“We’ve always done it that way” is a common refrain when a ministry or program is questioned. In The Episcopal Church, tradition is a strong motivator. And in our liturgies and sacraments, “the way we’ve always done it” is a key link to our apostolic tradition.

But does that same thinking persist at staff meetings or in vestry decisions?

My current parish is rethinking how we handle Adult Christian Formation. Maybe your parish is rethinking how it handles vestry nominations. And maybe we all should reconsider how our meetings and committees should operate (or – gasp – if they should even exist in the first place!).

As we begin a new liturgical year, and approach a new calendar year with new budgets and vestries, perhaps it’s time we begin to examine our systems and experiment to find better ideas that have been there all along, but simply buried in layers of habit.