You or your organization may be plateaued, if… (Part 6)

October 15, 2018 Leave a comment

You or your organization may be plateaued…

  1. If departments and people blame others for lack of organization’s results.

There’s a significant environmental difference between growing organizations and those that have plateaued or begun to decline. It just feels different…

When organizations are growing, there is an aggressiveness that marks its culture. People feel like winners and their confidence in those who lead is typically strong. Even in places where growth demands a great deal from the team, there is still a sense that it’s worth the effort because we are experiencing the results we want.

In a plateaued organization, such feelings have faded. People who aren’t seeing results are far more likely to become sensitive about the effort required of them. If victories don’t seem within reach, the passion for great effort diminishes. Ultimately, the frustration of working hard without the desired reward takes its toll…and we begin to look more for excuses to explain our struggle rather than seeking answers to bring about its end.

In such settings, where it’s not uncommon for folks to respond quickly with why something can’t be done, they are also more quick to draw tight boundaries around their own responsibilities. “Not my job” or “if marketing would just get its act together” or some similar refrain undercuts any real effort for change. If someone else can be blamed, then I’m not the one that needs to act.  

One of the most common blame games in a plateaued occurs between those who produce a product and those who sell it. Marketers want a better product, noting that the best ones practically sell themselves. We can’t sell products nobody wants! Production types defend their product and insist that marketing’s effort or investment is lacking. After all, if the product sells itself, why do we need a marketing department?

In the local church, the blame game can occur between departments, like when the children’s ministry blames parents for the declining interest of children, or the youth ministry blames the school system for competing with its slate of activities, or the church as a whole blames its culture for no longer supporting its place in the community…and so on. As long as someone else is to blame, then it doesn’t feel like it’s my responsibility to act.

Starting to feel familiar now?

I’ve found that a typical meeting in such places may start with a problem we need to solve, but the conversation will usually end up identifying the real problem as something we either aren’t able to solve or believe someone else has to solve. So we blame executive leadership for their lack of whatever we need or we blame entities not in the room for their failure to do their part. Such conversations often will stir unresolved frustrations or devolve into reminiscing about days when the organization was moving forward.

While the “what to do” conversation is still yet ahead, never forget that the principal cause of plateau is lost vision. When we take our eyes off of the priority destination or the desire that once drove us forward, it doesn’t take long to land here…in the flat and barren lands of plateau.

Your Organization May Be Plateaued If… (Part 5)

You or your organization may be plateaued…

  1. If you say “no” more easily than you say “yes.”

Organizations on the rise are always looking for ways to climb higher. Organizations that are plateaued think differently. Most will either look for ways to solidify the height they have climbed or be certain that no decision will precipitate a descent. This shift of thinking is at the very core of their plateaued reality.

One of the necessary elements of a growing organization is the management activity that must grow alongside it. This is the skeletal framework that provides for infrastructure and has the potential to allow continued growth. Unfortunately, when forward movement slows, management typically doesn’t. In fact, management processes can very quickly assume the driver’s seat and take the reins. And when this happens, the wrong people are now leading.

In such a place, “no” becomes an easier answer than “yes.” You see, managerial types are motivated by getting their worlds organized and under control. Management means “manage” and more change doesn’t respond to such an agenda. “Let’s solidify where we are…” becomes the internal mantra. So systems and processes lock in their places and are guarded by these friends who are most at ease when they can manage their loads.

Among the first evidences of this shift is a “protectionism” of what we have done to reach the current pinnacle. Rather than seeking new ways to climb higher, it’s the path we’ve walked that must be guarded, even if that path has reached its zenith. Now, guarding the values that have led us this far is important, but it is also the trap that locks us into existing levels. Without vision, values don’t serve us as well. They are intended as the guides for the climb, but can become our prison at the rest stop.

Only vision and the new people or new ideas it generates can drive us forward.

Having worked with many plateaued organizations, I can say from much experience that “no” is more common than “yes” when new approaches are offered. Why we can’t do something is clearer to managerial types. For them, it is much more difficult to figure out how to integrate new ideas and directions into the world they are trying to get under control. So…committees make decisions, additional organizational layers are added for supposed efficiency, and ultimately the path for a new idea becomes blocked with numerous boulders.

Ask yourself, “How easy is it for us to engage a new idea or a new direction?” Or maybe ask, “why don’t new ideas get implemented easily in our organization?” When other similar organizations are finding a path forward, we need to grapple with why our team can never find their way to similar choices. Usually, it’s because “no” or the reasons we can’t are right at our fingertips.

You or Your Organization May Be Plateaued, If… (Part 4)

September 28, 2018 Leave a comment

You or your organization may be plateaued…

  1. If your people have different ideas of why you do what you do.

In the world of the local church, we have easily observed that the primary cause of plateau is “lost vision,” particularly in the pew. Likely results are similar when those within any organization lose track of the key motivating elements for what they do. As we have already seen in this series, programs or strategies require vision if they will maintain their effectiveness. When vision is lacking, the ongoing efforts to do what we do lose steam and quickly diminish in effectiveness. It’s vision that keeps us on the right path.

In an organization that has plateaued, such vision no longer rules the house. Either the “why” of our efforts has evaporated or it has given way to a dozen or more additional “whys” that folks manufacture out of their own assignments. Vision once clearly defined the “business we are in,” but now such clear focus eludes us.

What does this look like? I’ve seen a couple of settings where processes and the priorities of managerial types have taken the lead in what an organization does or even why it exists. Departments that were established to support the efforts of the frontlines now dictate their own frontlines to the organization and more resources are dedicated to managing what is rather than chasing what we originally began pursuing. These managers now dictate to the entities that actually produce our “business” and control priorities rather than providing the support they were originally designed for.

Perhaps a simple illustration will help. Years ago, I remember a church janitor coming into my office greatly frustrated and insisting that the church would need to discontinue one of our children’s ministries because they always left the building in such a mess. I made a remark about job security that he didn’t find amusing. His goal was a clean church and ministry that couldn’t contribute to that goal needed to be discontinued. While I could understand the frustration of having to clean the same things week after week, but you can likely see that his attitude revealed his need for a clearer understanding of the “why” of our efforts. We didn’t exist to make his job easier—we existed to impact the lives of those messy kids. His role was to aid those who were on the frontlines of our “why” in children’s ministries, not to rewrite such priorities in the favor of his own assignment.

Now, that may be too simple of an illustration, but plateau comes to any organization when its management processes assume the leadership chair. In any organization, management is the skeletal structure that helps hold everything in place. But, just like your bodies skeletal structure, management is best when it’s not easily seen. If you have a bone that’s showing, something probably isn’t healthy.

Still, many organizations reach a place of growth where they turn more of their decision-making to the support areas under the insistence of those who say we “have to do it this way.” While occasionally government regulation might make such prescriptions, more often these “have to” matters flow out of status quo preferences or efforts to make a manager’s job easier. Managers of support processes are critical folks in the organization and their value is unquestioned; however, a leader must also be aware of their preference for the status quo and for consistent approaches that they can streamline. Often a visionary organization that continues to be effective must be an organization that stretches and rewrites such comfortable preferences.

So, if you find that the answer to the “why” of what we do or the “where” that we long to be actually has multiple answers in the minds of your people, you are likely plateaued or heading that way in a hurry. Vision, clear vision, is what keeps an organization climbing and everyone in that organization must lay down their own agendas and preferences if we’re will stay on that track.

You or Your Organization May be Plateaued if… (Part 3)

September 17, 2018 Leave a comment

You or your organization may be plateaued…

  1. If you’re trusting your programs to drive your growth.

If you’re like a lot of leaders, you’re getting a bit weary of words like vision or mission. After all, what are words when you actually need to produce something. High-minded talk is just that…talk.

Still, there’s no denying that a loss of vision in a church or an organization is the primary cause of plateau. People who forget why they do what they do usually stop doing it very well. In truth, vision can be on the wall, but if it’s not in our hearts, things will stagnate. The “why” turns out to be the key ingredient in re-energizing our efforts, and it’s amazing to see how easily its place of importance is given to something else.

Programs.

Depending on your setting and the nature of your organization, the word “strategies” might feel more familiar. These are the mechanisms we use to bring about the realities our vision longs for. Programs are the steps we take to get where we long to go, but they are not the destination or the dream, and they make a lousy substitute when we slip them into the wrong place.

I see it all the time. Leaders who perceive that their group is plateaued start looking for that strategy piece, that magic bullet that will get the machine humming again. Conferences promise the answers, books chronicling the successes of others pile up in the corner as the search for “what we must do” takes over the leader’s focus.

Most of us have experienced the disappointment of “doing what they did and not getting what they got.” Someone else’s journey seldom lays over ours like a tight-fitting template. Elements like setting, resources, capacities, and opportunities rarely match the environ that brought someone else’s brilliant moves. Their program fit their moment and isn’t likely to fit ours.

AND…since programs are a means to fulfill vision, programs require vision to be fulfilling. Think about that with me. By design, programs are intended as the mechanism for achieving the goals of our dreams. But when there’s no clear dream, what will programs aim for and how will they be motivated. Programs without vision are just a lot of work. And new programs in the hands of folks with no vision have little if any prospect of effectiveness. Our search for that magic bullet comes up empty, not because the ideas are bad, but they fail because what they need to succeed is lacking.

The answer isn’t a “what,” it’s a “why.”

If lost vision, in the organization or in the pew, is the principal cause of plateau, then rediscovering it or finding a new one must be the way forward. Plateaued organizations typically don’t discover this until decline has brought us to our knees. Our struggle isn’t that we’re doing the wrong things, it’s that we aren’t doing them for the reason with which they were imagined.

Now vision is a struggle for many of us. After all, only about 20% of leaders are natural “vision leaders.” These friends look for answers in the vision drawer first, but most of us are looking somewhere else. As “values leaders,” we believe that doing what is right and always doing it right should bring results. Excellence in our processes and our programs becomes its own destination, and we struggle to acknowledge that our goals aren’t being met.

Fresh vision that rings clear in the hearts of our people is the catalyst to break from the bonds of the status quo. A new day starts in new hearts before it can be shaped into new ideas. “What should we do?” is never the first question to consider. Instead, discover your “why” and the “what” will be easier to find. Never forget that without strategy, a vision stands still, but without vision steps in any direction are unlikely to bring success

You or your organization may be plateaued if… (Part 2)

September 10, 2018 Leave a comment

You or your organization may be plateaued

  1. If you’re better at why we can’t than how we could.

A common characteristic in plateaued and declining congregations is the ease with which they reject new thinking, new ideas, new vision, and just about any other “new” mindset that presents itself. A culture of “no” often arises when we are stuck, not because we’re negative people, but because the status quo has become deeply entrenched and we often lack the kind of people that can help us think our way forward.

Plateaus typically come at the end of growth, not decline. It’s near the top of the closest hill where we can most easily find that settling place, and when we do we can find it equally easy to stay there. Plateaus are most commonly caused by lost vision among the rank and file. People are pleased with yesterday’s victories and are prone to bask in them until the momentum they provided slips away. Without vision, forward movement ceases and soon the pond from which we once fished out great ideas and efforts begins to grow stagnant.

People who join the leadership ranks in times of plateau are often a different breed than those who stepped forward when we were climbing. These friends, good people all of them, tend to be more managerial types—they can help us consolidate the previous gains and build systems that sustain them. These folks are good at doing what we’ve done and even adding some efficiencies to how we do it, but they’re not typically good at doing something new. In fact, the status quo that led to their leadership slot becomes something to subconsciously protect and taking chances on new ideas feels threatening.

I’ve worked in more than one organization that was trapped in this quicksand. New ideas, new product designs, new ministry foci, were typically met with “why that won’t work” or “why we can’t do that” type of responses. Often in such places, salesman or others responsible for the frontlines of customer engagement bring ideas that are quickly shot down by those who must produce them. In the church, it’s the ministry leaders who dream of new approaches only to have those governing the purse strings easily dismiss them.

A culture of “no” doesn’t always feel like a negative culture. Usually those who create it believe they are acting responsibly, avoiding careless spending, following the rules, or maintaining good stewardship in their efforts. This is simply who these leaders are and how the world they have created works most comfortably. Unfortunately, their sustaining motivation can lock an organization into zero growth mode.

Some have made a big deal of the difference between leaders and managers, and this is the arena where that difference makes sense. Surely, every entity needs both, but if your organization is quicker with the “no” than the “yes” it could be because you have managers in chairs where leaders should sit. Frustrated leaders call these folks “bureaucrats” or other less than attractive names, but what they have identified is a culture that hears “no” before it considers the possibilities ahead, a culture that’s better at setting up camp than going into battle.

Truth is, in the church this culture can grow out of frustration over what we really can’t do. When we see other ministries scale the mountain and celebrate the successes we long for, we want to take their climbing tools and join the fun. But then we realize those tools weren’t meant for our ascent and we add to our list of what we apparently can’t do. As that list grows, so does our tendency to greet future new ideas with the “no” we’ve learned from experience.

So…what do you do? Well, that conversation is yet ahead of us. But the first and necessary step is to say “yes” when someone asks, “do we need to change?” Plateau is so easy to deny and inaction is equally easy to justify. Now, the road out doesn’t come with just any new approach or idea, but it will never come at all until we recognize that a plateau has us in its grasp.

You or Your Organization May Be Plateaued if… (Part 1)

August 31, 2018 2 comments

“So…you’ve plateaued…”

Actually, it’s quite unlikely that anyone will actually tell you that, at least not in a timely manner. In truth, we don’t usually realize that we’ve plateaued in our careers, our personal growth, our marriages, or in the ministries we lead until signs of the more dreaded “decline” are in evidence.

To plateau is to “reach a state of little or no change after a time of activity or progress.” It’s when growth has stopped and isn’t going to restart on its own—a moment we typically don’t discern until we’ve been stuck for a while. For example, think about when you realized that you had stopped growing taller. For me, that was around 69 inches and it happened when I was 19, but something inside me was convinced I would still grow a bit more. After all, I had added 9 inches in the previous two years so there was every reason for me to believe (and hope) that greater “heights” were ahead. Even now, at 57, I’m hoping…but 38 years of evidence is starting to convince me that I’ve plateaued. (Yes, that’s what denial sounds like—and I’ve heard from others that some decline may be yet ahead).

When you’re leading any type of organization, including a church, signs of plateau aren’t easily discerned. We have our own forms of denial that block our view of reality—thoughts like next Sunday will surely be better…next month’s sales report will likely reveal what this month’s report didn’t… next season’s team will be better if we all just try a bit harder… But that’s not how a plateau works.

Having worked with churches and organizations for a lot of years, I’ve often wished we could discern plateau more quickly. If we just knew sooner that we needed to do something like refresh vision, develop new strategies, target new horizons, or awaken our values. Sadly, such knowledge doesn’t come in good timing, choosing to wait until the cement of a plateau has hardened around our feet.

Likely the biggest culprit in this ability to see we’re stuck is DENIAL. We want to think we are still in growth mode, not that the vision which once propelled us has now lost its steam. We want to believe that our renewed commitment to do what we’ve always known to do has some new results just waiting to emerge. After all, our current wisdom brought us this far. Finding new wisdom isn’t easy and chasing new direction can be risky—especially if we don’t have to…yet. So we hope for that better day to rise from the midst of our current day, and only when the days actually start getting worse do we confront the pain of seeing that something must change.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on plateaued organizations and on the indicators that might help a diligent leader to discover such a current condition. Though we don’t want to think we’re at that place, there are some organizational indicators that offer us the “heads up” we need to get started on solutions. These are the realities of plateaued organizations that many leaders and teams just get used to, not realizing the greater warning lights they’re trying to trigger.

A number of years ago, a comedian rocketed to career fame by suggesting that if certain elements were present in your life, “redneck” might be a label you’re wearing. Well, a list of signs that you or your organization might be plateaued won’t be as funny (or career-defining for me). But maybe that list could help you see what you’re not seeing or give you reason to face what you might be denying.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be sharing these indicators of plateau. At the moment there’s nearly a dozen of them, and they’ll relate regardless of the organization you lead. Most days, my vantage point comes from the world of the local church, but anything you lead, large or small, must confront the evidences of plateau. I am convinced that knowing these signs will help you gain both a better understanding of how organizations and churches work and what it looks like when things aren’t really working as well as we want to believe.

Subject to Change – 14

This 14-part series of blogs–Subject to Change–is taken from the first three chapters of a new book by the same name that I hope to release in 2019. Believe me, there’s a lot more thirst-quenching truth to draw from the well of things people wish their pastor knew about leading them in change. I welcome your comments on what you’ve read thus far…

So, Pastor, we know you’re anxious to get started on the future, but let us walk you through our past a bit. We need you to know a few things before we put this car in drive. So let’s summarize a bit:

We need you to know that you’ve missed a lot.

We need you to know that yours isn’t our first vision.

We need you to know that getting this far hasn’t been easy.

We need you to be gentle when discovering our failures.

And, we need you to walk in our old shoes a bit before thinking we can run in your new ones.

We’re all a part of a larger story, a tale we hope will reach epic measurements, and we want you to be everything your role requires. We’ll even help you by doing our parts too. Just don’t think that this story started the day we added your name to our bulletin. It didn’t and there’s a lot of stuff behind us that we’ll keep carrying until you lovingly help us lay it down.

Here’s what happens if you do. If you love us enough to listen to our stories and let us cry through the sad parts, we’ll write new stories with you. We don’t need you to fix us—at least not yet. We don’t need you to run your highlighter over our failures—we know them too well. We just need you to love us enough to think you can learn from us too. And we’ll teach you what a few forays into the tall weeds have taught us. We both need to know those things ‘cause we really don’t want to end up there again.

Remember My friend, Bill? He turned out to be a really good guy. In fact, by the end of our journey together, he was ready to stand before his congregation and use his influence to fuel the new direction he and his team had discovered. Turns out he’s the kind of guy you’d love to have in your church. To say that he’s a believer in his congregation’s future today would be an understatement. I’m guessing there are several folks in that church reeling in shock to see Bill becoming such a catalyst for change. Last I saw, He was joyfully flailing his arms to fan that flame. It feels really good to see him so enthusiastic. Like most of us, he’s a lot better looking when he smiles.

Funny thing, though. I keep running into Bill nearly everywhere I go. Actually, it’s not Bill himself, but maybe a few of his cousins. In so many settings, I find people twisted into a tight ball that will only ever be unraveled when a wise and caring pastor takes the time to do what Bill’s pastor did for him.

Truth is, Pastor, none of us have been where you want to go, and we’re pretty sure that you haven’t been there either. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go or we don’t long for destinations like the one you describe. We just need a bit more trust, a bit more relationship, and a little less fear to climb aboard your fast-moving train. We’ve always thought there could be a Promised Land for our congregation, but so far it’s only been a place we talk about and we’ve already tried more than few maps to get there. Yours may be the right one and you may be the chosen one to guide our journey there, but the previous locomotives that have powered through here and the depot full of baggage they left have taught us to prefer looking more than leaping.