Leading with Imperfect Knowledge

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Leaders today are faced with the challenge of deciding how to move forward with imperfect knowledge. Lewis Center Director Doug Powe says leaders must risk action when they have enough knowledge to head in the right direction. He outlines decision-making principles for situations when gathering all the data isn’t a realistic option.


Bob Coutts, a retired executive at Lockheed Martin, recently used the phrase imperfect knowledge. The challenge facing leaders today is making decisions with imperfect knowledge. I believe this is especially true for church leaders. Everyone is scrambling to predict what the new normal will look like coming out of the pandemic. The truth is that we can make guesses, but we are having to forge a path forward knowing the facts can change quickly.

What really captured my imagination when Coutts used the phrase imperfect knowledge is his suggestion that those willing to lean into this idea increase their odds of flourishing. Typically, we think taking our time to gather all the facts is the best way forward. But during these times that may not be prudent. By the time we gather all the facts it may be too late; we will have lost the opportunity to move our congregation where it needs to go. The question is, “What do we need to know to lead with imperfect knowledge?”

The new 80/20 rule

The new 80/20 rule is that we only have to be 80 percent right but able to figure out the other 20 percent. The goal of getting it all right sets an expectation of gathering and waiting to make sure you have all the facts. Unfortunately, since you can always gather more information, this approach can place you in a constant holding pattern. The 80/20 rule suggests that you will be 80 percent right even though you have imperfect knowledge. The key becomes figuring out the best way to negotiate the other 20 percent.

In reality, we are always adapting when we make decisions because things are constantly in motion. The challenge of having to adapt and figure out 20 percent of a decision is not insurmountable. For instance, a congregation could say, “Let’s wait and see how hybrid worship options work in other churches after the pandemic. If we allow ourselves time to study how others do it, we will make a wise decision.” Or a congregation can instead say, “We will move forward with hybrid worship knowing that we will have to adapt along the way, but we will already be moving toward our future.” The latter is working with imperfect knowledge, while still maintaining the mission of the congregation.

A different type of consensus

Building a consensus helps get everyone on board and headed in the same direction. The challenge in building consensus is that it can be time consuming and can require a lot of information gathering. I am not suggesting you forego information gathering because that would not be wise. But what if a consensus can be built around an idea and not a fully detailed plan? Returning to the hybrid worship example, what if the leadership gained consensus to pursue hybrid worship and the expectation was to keep the team informed of the progress. This gives the leadership the space to move forward without worrying about having to have all of the answers immediately. It also provides the full team with times designated to check in to make sure things have not gone too far off the rails. Seeking a different kind of consensus can help keep things moving forward.

It is theological

Thinking about moving forward with imperfect knowledge is consistent with our theology. We are a people on the way who are continuously discerning God’s calling. We have glimpses of where we are headed. We seek the Kingdom of God, but our knowledge of this Kingdom is incomplete. We are traveling with imperfect knowledge on a path toward it, trusting we will catch enough glimpses of it to keep us on the right track.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we are making decisions with imperfect knowledge. Like the apostle Paul, we see only dimly through a mirror, we know only in part (1 Corinthians 13:12). But we can still take a path trusting that we will catch glimpses along the way that let us know we are on the right track. We are not proceeding blindly, but we are doing so trusting that the knowledge we have is enough for us to be headed in the right direction.

Leading with imperfect knowledge means being willing to take appropriate risk. A risk that we will be at least 80 percent right. A risk that we can find consensus around an idea and not a plan. A risk that what we claim theologically can work in practice. Are you waiting to gather all the information you can because you do not want to get it wrong? Or are you willing to lead with an imperfect knowledge?


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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He is also co-author with Jasmine Smothers of Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon Press, 2015), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. His previous books include New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.


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