First Third Conversations

Lessons on Adaptive Change

By Dr. Terri Martinson Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary

Yesterday I spent the day talking about adaptive change with leadership teams from seven congregations. Adaptive change is dealing with situations for which there is no known answer. Technical change, the other type of change, deal with situations which have been encountered before. The two require different things from leadership, have different work, take different amounts of time, and seek different results. I was excited to offer my well-researched and prepared presentation, but the stories and learnings I heard from these leaders expanded and enhanced the ideas in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Below are a few nuggets from our day.

  1. Leading change requires leaders and leadership. Individual leaders are important, but even more so is the communal act of leading. Together there are more ears, more hands, more ideas, more perspectives, more energy, and, bottom-line, it’s more fun. Leading is a shared process.
  2. Leading change entails attending to relationships. Since leadership is a communal act, relationships matter. Tend to them! And share; share power, tasks, meals, ideas, and concerns. Leadership seeks multiplication. Expand, invite, mentor, and replicate.
  3. Leading change starts with asking questions. The first question - what is the right question? Slowing down on the front end will pay off later! What type of change are you seeking? Do your research; talk with others outside and within your ministry. And get your question right!
  4. Leading change entails a lot of listening! Ask questions and then listen! And listen deeply and often. And be surprised. Listen to what people say, and ask what they mean. Wonder. Explore. Imagine.
  5. Leading change exercises patience. Seeking solutions to new situations is hard work. It’s not linear, it discovers dead-ends, and moves at the pace of the community. The rewards will be there, but they may not be in the form, or places, you thought.
  6. Leading change involves taking risks. Create experiments. Test ideas. Observe what happens. Note failures. And learn from everything!
  7. Leading change means being open to many right answers. Adaptive situations have not been encountered before. No one knows the “preferred” ending. Don’t let old standards overshadow. Be open to enter new territory and discover new things.

Leading adaptive change is messy. There will be pressure to have something to show for your efforts sooner than later. And people will want you to provide answers, rather than questions. But adaptive work takes time, is exploratory and necessary in our church today.  So stay the course! And share your learnings with others on the journey!

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