Can You Touch Your Toes?
I’m envious if you can. I can’t. To be fair, I’ve never been too flexible.
When I was ten, inspired by Mary Lou Retten’s ’84 Olympic run, I tried gymnastics for a season. “Tried” is a crucial word for what I did. It didn’t take long for me to realize my lack of flexibility was a hindrance to my Olympic dreams.
Turns out, my flexibility hasn’t improved over the years. If it is even possible, I’m less flexible now than at the tender age of ten.
Time Makes Ridgid
When I interviewed William Vanderbloemen for my new book, Big Shoes To Fill, he commented,
“Age reduces flexibility. This is true for organizations, too.”
William is a runner. We were talking about exercise and leadership when he noted this insight.
He’s so right.
The longer a business, church, or organization exists, the more set its ways become.
From Idea to Organization
Chapter 2 of Big Shoes To Fill dissects this reality more deeply, but for this conversation, it’s critical to understand how leadership and management work with and against each other.
In its simplest form, leadership is the act of creating what can become, whereas management is the art of efficiently and effectively maintaining what currently exists. Both leadership and management are necessary for organizational success.
Here’s the rub: The longer an organization exists, the more it gets “organized.” The longer systems, processes, and methods remain, the more ingrained they become. Like ruts in a road, the more the organization drives the same routes, the deeper the ruts on the path.
Every organization begins with a leader and an idea. To scale the concept, the leader engaged management. Over time, managing the idea became the focus of the work, leaving us with William’s observation.
Increasing Organizational Flexibility
The following strategies are crucial for any company, church, or organization to embrace, as change is the only constant in life and culture. However, for the leader of an established organization or a leader stepping into a new role, the rigidity of the team or organization presents a unique challenge.
If you want to increase organizational flexibility, here are 7 strategies to consider:
1. Grow Your Relational Influence
From page 100 of Big Shoes To Fill, “People may obey your position, but they’ll follow your influence.“
If you want to help your team and organization stretch more, they need to trust you first. Trust is built through relationships. It’s about your competency and character. If you intend to lead change, you must first inspire the team to walk alongside you. This can be a time-consuming endeavor, but without the relationship, your influence will suffer.
Flexible organizations prioritize relational influence over positional authority.
2. Separate Clarity and Uncertainty
My gymnastics coach pushed and prodded me to keep my legs straight when stretching to touch my toes, which was impossible, by the way. The goal was clear, though – touch my toes with straight legs. I never got there, but at least the target was clear.
Rigid organizations insist on constant clarity and absolute certainty. The problem is only one can exist during seasons of change and transition.
The mission and vision drive clarity, but the methods and strategies create certainty. The mission may never change, but methods frequently do. Or need to.
Strategies are created for current realities. This is true for every method, system, and approach. How most companies operate today made perfect sense when the systems were designed. But strategies are time-stamped. When things change, the mission remains, but the method must flex.
Flexible organizations remain married to their mission but only date their model.
3. Act on Uncomfortable Answers
This may seem obvious, but the questions you ask determine the answers you’ll receive.
It’s all too easy in the C-suite to ask the same common, easy questions every quarter. Most financial systems drive these questions. Rather than hearing uncomfortable answers, flexible organizations listen to hard truths and do something about it.
This is a significant difference between flexing and remaining rigid. The rigid leader sees information but excuses away action. Flexible leaders refuse not to act. Their progress bias requires that they face reality and act accordingly. This also means they are willing to admit uncomfortable truths. When market share wanes, flexible organizations look in the mirror rather than blame the customer. When attendance is down, they evaluate what to change rather than lament a changing culture. When revenue dips, they consider solutions that involve difficult choices.
Flexible organizations refrain from asking easy questions or sitting on important information. They dig deep into data and reality. And they act accordingly.
4. Celebrate More Risks and Failures
Older people tend to become more risk-averse. I’ve noticed this in my own life. I still drive fast (and potentially aggressive), but less fast and aggressive than in my twenties. I suspect elements of your life have changed in similar ways.
The longer an organization exists, the larger it can grow, meaning there is more to lose if things go wrong. Remember those early days? Entrepreneurs will try just about anything. Why? Because they have very little, if anything, to lose. Over time and with growth, there is plenty to lose! Fear determines risk. Yet, keeping everything exactly as it is can be the most risky thing an organization can do.
To gain flexibility, organizations must celebrate more risks and failures.
I learn this while leading Woodstock City Church. Our staff had become a bit more rigid over time. To help us “touch our toes,” I began asking this question at every staff meeting: “What have we failed at recently? And what did we learn from the experience?”
The first time or two I asked this question, nobody responded. I assumed that would happen, so I came prepared with a failure of two of my own. Over time, though, our staff began to take more calculated risks and have answers to these questions. More importantly, the church improved through innovation.
Flexible organizations are open to risk and failure. The best way to encourage this behavior is to normalize it.
5. Create Disruption Teams
Disruption is the enemy of the status quo. In a real way, management exists to extinguish disruptions. As we’ve said, the longer an organization is around, the more rigid they become. Therefore, they are less apt to allow disruptive ideas, experiments, and behaviors.
Larger corporations work around this temptation by creating R&D departments. These “experiments” are considered outside of the corporation’s current operations and, therefore, can proceed with limited interruption (and, at times, oversight).
Smaller businesses, companies, and churches don’t have the luxury of creating (and funding) separate R&D functions. But this cannot become an excuse for remaining stuck in time.
Every organization can assemble a team (even if volunteers) of innovative problem solvers to consider problems and experiment with solutions. And these “solutions” don’t have to be problem-free or completely proven, either. Find places where you can test ideas on a small scale. Try something new from time to time. If it doesn’t work, stop it. When it does work, you’ve increased your flexibility.
Flexible organizations embrace disruptions as opportunities.
6. Diversify Decision Tables
7. Honor the Past Without Repeating the Past
The longer an organization is around, the more history it has. History and rigidity feel like best friends. But we can have one without the other.
The secret is to honor the past without remaining tied to it. This is best accomplished by celebrating the past while providing historical context.
For instance, I work with a lot of churches. It’s sad to admit, but many churches have greater memories than dreams. They remember the “glory days” of full auditoriums, dozens of baptisms, and bustling children’s ministries. These historical memories were created by two things: Contextual reality and intentional strategy. For a church to relive its past success, it must adjust its approach to fit the current context. This is true of every organization, not just churches.
Flexible organizations recognize past success is tied to the context, not the strategy. They can honor the past without remaining tied to the previous approach.
Bend or Break
That reads a bit extreme, but it’s true. We can list company after company, church after church, and business after business that died due to a lack of flexibility. And, if it needs to be said, you can’t get flexible in a moment. I tried that on the parallel bars at my gymnastics gym. And it didn’t work.
Gaining flexibility is a process, not a point. To prepare for future changes, leaders must begin ridding their teams, departments, divisions, and organizations of rigid thinking today.
You can do it, though. And you can start with the seven strategies listed above.