We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

In today’s increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable environment, church leaders need to be involved in design thinking more than ever.

Pause Button: If you are a ChurchWorld leader and believe that you don’t need to concern yourself with design thinking, you should probably take a look at Why Design Thinking and What if Leaders Thought Like Designers. Just saying…

Design is all about action, and churches too often get stuck at the talking stage

Face it – despite all our planning and analyzing and controlling, the typical church’s track record at translating its rhetoric into results is not impressive. In the business world, researchers estimate that only somewhere between 10% and 60% of the promised returns for new strategies are actually delivered. Having been around ChurchWorld for over 30 years, my observation is the reality would be between 10% and 30% – tops. Practices that consume enormous amounts of time and attention most produce discouraging results. All the empty talk is making it harder  and harder to get anything to actually happen. Churches expect the staff to be member-focused while the majority watches. When a staff or volunteer actually takes a risk, they are punished if it doesn’t succeed. Ambitious growth goals aren’t worth the spreadsheets they are computed on. Getting new results requires new tools – and design has real tools to help move from talk to action.

Design teaches us how to make things feel real, and most church rhetoric today remains largely irrelevant to the people who are supposed to make things happen

Church elders and staff can make plans, bring on new staff, invest in the latest conference success story – but they can’t change the organization without a lot of help. The only people who will care enough to help are those for whom strategy is real. Things that feel real to people are both interesting and personally significant. They are experienced, not just pronounced. While leaders are showing growth spreadsheets, designers are telling stories. We have a lot to learn from design about how to tell a story that engages an audience, captures the experience dimension and makes the future feel real. Look at any presentation created by anybody at a design firm and compare it with the Death by PowerPoint presentation you are forced to sit though by your organization. Enough said.

Design is tailored to dealing with uncertainty, and ChurchWorld is obsessed with analysis that assumes a stable and predictable world

That would be the world we don’t live in anymore. The world that used to give us puzzles but now dishes up mysteries. And no amount of data about yesterday will solve the mystery of tomorrow. ChurchWorld is designed for stability and control and is full of people with veto power over new ideas and initiatives. They are the “designated doubters.” The few who are allowed to try something new are expected to show the data to “prove” their answer and must get implementation right the first time. Designers have no such expectations. They thrive on uncertainty and are enthusiastic about experiments and patient with failure. Design teaches us to let go and allow more chaos into our lives. Designers have developed tools to help them actively manage the uncertainty they expect to deal with.

Design understands that products and services are for human beings, not target markets segmented into demographic categories

It is easy in ChurchWorld to lose sight of the real people behind the masses surrounding our campuses. The reality of human beings and their hopes and hurts fades as they are tabulated and averaged into categories, reduced to the status of preferences in an analysis paper. Lost within that reality is the deep understanding of needs – often ones that aren’t even articulated – that are the starting point for real ministry. This messy reality is something that designers understand well. They master the skills of observation, of understanding human beings and their needs, while typical ChurchWorld leaders learn mostly to evaluate, an activity that rarely involves the kind of empathy that produces fresh insights.

If you want efficiency, you get everybody who thinks the same way and they’ll get to a decision quickly. And that works 80 percent of the time. But for that 20 percent of the time when you need something disruptive, innovative, and creative, you’re going to have to put up with a little bit more ambiguity.

Jeremy Alexis, Illinois Institute of Technology

Who are the designers on your team?

inspired by and adapted from Designing for Growth by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie to fit ChurchWorld realities

Designing for Growth


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