Susan Beaumont says churches are still in a liminal space that calls for learning and experimenting rather than planning. She explains how different segments of an organization adapt new ideas and outlines the key leadership tasks for innovating and adapting in these uncertain times.
We are still in liminal space. Reopening our buildings and regathering the congregation physically will not resolve our disorientation. We are still stuck between something that has ended and a new thing that is not yet ready to begin.
You cannot resolve liminality by planning your way through it. You must learn your way through it. Guide your leaders through cycles of observation, experimentation, adjustment, and iteration. You need a learning agenda, fluid action plans and containers for reflecting on your learning. You do not need a leadership body in full agreement about which way to go. That will come later — maybe.
How organizations adopt new ideas
In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers explains how and why new ideas and technologies are adopted in organizations. He introduces five categories of constituents who populate the typical organization as it adapts to change. The makeup and behavior of these five groups help us understand the tipping point for action — when we have enough support to move forward.
- Innovators. Approximately 2.5% of the people in the organization. This group is eager to pursue information and is well connected to sources of innovative ideas. They are ready to take risks and often have the financial liquidity to support their risk-taking behavior.
- Early Adopters. About 13.5% of the people. These are the opinion setters in the organization. They tend to be younger and better educated than the majority. They also relish new information. They are more discerning and more cautious than the Innovators about the risks they will support.
- Early Majority. About 34% of an organization. This group offers support once they are confident a new idea will succeed. They are pragmatists. They usually have above average social status but rarely demonstrate thought leadership in the congregation.
- Late Majority. Another 34%. They demonstrate a high degree of skepticism. Are often seen as “the guardians of tradition.” They offer their support eventually — if and when most others have already done so.
- Laggards. About 16% of the people in the organization are diehards. They have smaller circles of friends and experiences. They have an aversion to risk or change. They seek out people who agree with their opinion. Some may grudgingly acquiesce to new direction over time. Others never come on board.
Leaders are cautioned not to invest too much energy bringing the late majority and the laggards along for the ride. The tipping point for a change initiative is when the innovators, early adopters, and the first segment of the early majority are on board. That is the moment when the organization is primed to act. The rest of the early majority and the late majority will come along over time and the laggards may never support a change initiative, so your energy is wasted trying to get their support.
Building commitment and moving forward
So, what are your leadership tasks for the next chapter of this liminal season?
- Identify and work with your innovators and early adopters to create a vital learning agenda for the next year. For example, learn about the needs and interests of the worshipping community that chooses to remain online or explore digital partnerships with other organizations because we do not have adequate resources to offer vital in person and online educational experiences.
- Ask your governing board to approve the learning agenda. This authorization will help you to prioritize the organization’s time and resources for the designated learning period.
- Create an innovation team for each learning area you have named and have those teams create flexible action plans for advancing learning. These teams should be made up of innovators, early adopters, and the early majority. Action plans must be fluid enough to evolve as the environment around you evolves.
- Listen to and address the concerns of the laggards, because the late majority also listens to their concerns and the majority need to hear you address the reservations raised. However, you should not let the concerns of the laggards stop forward momentum. You probably can’t make them happy — so don’t make that your objective.
- Name new metrics for monitoring and evaluating the success of your learning initiatives. Be sure your metrics measure learning, rather than rewarding premature “right answers.”
- Embrace failures. Charge the innovation teams with reflecting on both successes and failures and find ways to loop your larger leadership body into the learning. As you learn, iterate (adjust the experiment and repeat).
Moving forward calls for imagination and resilience. It does not require getting everyone on the same page with consensual action plans. Vital congregations will resist the impulse to plan their way out of liminality. They will act first. See what they learn. Adjust. Try again. Save consensus building for later.