Have you ever worked on a project for a church committee where you’ve spent weeks meeting, planning, studying, and preparing to make a decision, then a few more weeks double-checking some things, and then a handful more weeks waiting for the right people to come back from vacation, and finally after months of delays, preparation, and hard work, discovered that the opportunity had passed or the problem had solved itself?
Nobody likes to waste their time, and sometimes churches move at the speed of committees. (Which is, incidentally, only slightly slower than frozen molasses on a January morning in northern Canada . . . during an ice age.) Speed is not the only virtue, of course, and we want to make wise decisions with limited resources. But in many cases, it would be very helpful if churches were a little more agile.
There’s a lot to be learned from the software development world’s use of agile methodology. Rather than the typical software design process, which involves months of planning, laying out requirements, and creating meticulous designs before writing any code, agile development focuses on getting a prototype up and running as quickly as possible and into the hands of test users. Changes are rapid (thus the name) and requirements may shift on the fly. Agile methodology is not necessarily for the faint of heart, but it has enabled countless companies to quickly produce products that meet their users’ needs for far lower costs than the traditional design process.
So what can churches take away from agile methodology?
1. Think in Processes, Not Goals
Many of us are conditioned to envision new efforts, programs, or processes as binary choices. We try something and it will either succeed or fail, and that’s the end of the story. The only problem is, of course, that this isn’t the end of the story. When we focus on each effort as an isolated story that can only end in one of two outcomes, we lose out on a ton of our ability to learn from failures quickly and make adjustments.
Rather than focusing on goals (“Did we hit the metric we set at the beginning?”), churches could sometimes focus on the process itself (“What did we learn and what adjustments are needed going forward?”). Goal-oriented thinking neatly categorizes each new effort into a success or failure, but process-oriented thinking allows failure to be part of the path to success. Note that this doesn’t mean we don’t have goals, but rather that we’re able to learn and adjust more quickly by changing our approach. By focusing on the process itself and expecting a certain amount of failure along the way, we can more quickly make the changes needed to reach our goals efficiently.
2. Fail Early
A key piece of the agile process is getting something into testing as quickly as possible, often knowing that it won’t do the job we need it to do. But early testing can point to where the flaws are and ensure that the corrections are actually moving things toward the users’ needs. (Have you ever seen that software package with the killer feature that absolutely no one needs but probably sounded good in the planning meeting?)
Fail early in the process of any new effort. Thinking of trying a new Bible study curriculum? Get a draft together and do a study or two with different groups. Considering a new children’s ministry outreach? Consider hosting a family movie night or a similar event and see what the community response is. Families might be so overloaded that another activity isn’t the answer, or there might be a need for low-cost activities that bring families together. The only way to know is to test the waters and see. Test early, fail early. Know that some parts won’t work well and others will. Make sure your testers know that you’re testing and solicit their feedback.
3. Fail Often
Try lots of things. Many won’t work, but some will. Some of our biggest successes in the tech departments at CTSFW have come about from lunch conversations where someone said, “You know what would be cool?” and dared to dream a bit. We can’t always do everything, but trying a number of things will give you valuable information about what your members want and need.
Once we’ve established that failure is a valuable part of the learning process, it only makes sense to do it as often as possible. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we set out to fail or that we try things haphazardly, but that we’re continuing to work the process and make adjustments toward our goals. Maybe an evening activity wasn’t the right fit for your children’s ministry. Can we try something mid-morning and see if there’s a community that needs serving? Maybe we need Mother’s Day resources more than family activities. Let’s try a special Christmas shopping childcare event and see what the response is. Maybe the families in our community are so overwhelmed that what they really need is permission to NOT do any more, and we need to look for high-invitation, low-challenge ways to serve them in the things they’re already doing. Experiment and see!
4. Accept Feedback as Fact
One of the most uncomfortable things in the world is honest feedback. It can be difficult to get and sometimes even harder to receive. But we absolutely must receive it and give it the appropriate weight.
Sid Meier, a famous video game designer whose games I have spent hours and hours with, notes that feedback is fact. If someone came to your children’s ministry event and didn’t enjoy it, you can either spend precious time arguing about all the reasons they should have enjoyed it (which will, of course, not change the fact that they didn’t) or you can honor the feedback they’re providing as fact and accept that they didn’t enjoy it. (Which, not entirely incidentally, frees you up to consider the more important questions: why didn’t they enjoy it and how can we improve for next time?) It’s not necessarily fun to see something you’ve put a ton of time and energy into be criticized, but it’s precisely that feedback that we’re after. By accepting the underlying facts behind the feedback, we can make the changes we need to improve.
5. Focus on One or Two Things to Learn
Finally, remember this isn’t just random effort. We’re working toward a particular goal and trying different things to improve as we go. While it can be tempting to get pulled off in different directions, remember that resources are ultimately limited (unless your church has unlimited money, in which case there are several endowments I’d like to discuss with you), and that we can’t try everything. Directed experimentation with adjustments based on experience and feedback, though, can help us pinpoint the needs of our communities faster than studies from outside generally can. It’s far better to try and learn than to study and never act!
Hear from Rev. Bill Johnson live as we chat with him about best practices for using agile methodology in churches.
Thursday, December 6 at 11:30 a.m. (CT) on Facebook