Jeffrey Kemmerer
Grace Allentown

Well, I am back to the convention again (“the Source, for you Matrix fans”). Another of the many highlights was Hugh O’Doherty. Hugh is a world renowned peacemaker and promoter of adaptive change. Having lived the violence in Northern Ireland, he is adjunct professor at the Harvard Kennedy School teaching “Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change”. We were fortunate to have him conduct a workshop on change and leadership at the convention. It is impossible to summarize all the lessons learned in the space of this blog, but the biggest points for me were:

  • Problems can range from technical (the car is broken) to adaptive (our church is broken). Do not try to impose a technical solution on an adaptive problem.
  • Successes of the past are not necessarily guidelines for the future. Look forward for a solution while learning from the past.

The photo above shows the attempt to impose a technical solution, a wall, on the very complex adaptive problem of the torn social fabric of Northern Ireland. The result was far from satisfactory.

Yikes ! A technical solution is not the answer? Hard words for an engineer to hear, particularly an “I want to fix it” male.

So what is an adaptive problem ? One of the defining characteristics of an adaptive problem is that there are no pre-defined “plug and play” solutions. What we did before will not solve the problem. We can look back for inspiration, but the solution is found looking forward and adapting our organizations, our interactions and even our thought processes — a time consuming and potentially painful process.

The inability to react to adaptive challenges continues to plague businesses today. Managers who are influential now, developed their skills 10 – 20 years ago. When facing business pressures, they tend to retreat to the comfort of old “tried and true” solutions, often ineffective in the current environment.

One of the most spectacular examples of this was Xerox. In 1970s and early 1980s Xerox assembled a group of young engineers who quite literally invented the future in Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). They developed the personal computer, laser printer, Ethernet (networking protocol fundamental to the internet), graphical user interface (now called Windows), and desktop publishing. Despite having the future in their research laboratory, company management remained focused on selling “clicks” (one click per photocopy) of their market leading “Xerox” machines. They rejected the new developments. They were looking backward, not forward, and when faced with business profit pressures, they resorted to “tried and true” solutions, completely missing the enormous opportunity in their labs. (This story is detailed in “Dealers of Lightning”, by Michael Hitzik)

So what does this mean for our journey ? Well, clearly Hugh’s caution of technical solutions should be heeded. Unfortunately the technical solutions are easiest to define and implement, but only suitable for technical problems. Replace a fan belt and my broken car is good to go — technical problem; technical solution..

What about the “broken parts” of our churches and Diocese ? Significant time was spent during the convention to try to answer this question and we began to understand the scope of the challenge. We all saw how easy it is to fall into the trap of framing a technical problem, slapping on a technical solution and “problem solved !”. Adaptive solutions can be elusive — and a lot of work !

This exposes probably the most important consideration for our pilgrimage. During our journey we will be called on to face difficult truths (a la John 6:60) and search for difficult answers. According to Hugh, the key is in the process; the rules for journey. We need to, in a step by step fashion, discern a path forward; for “creating the road as we go”. As we journey towards understanding, with God’s help we will be able to look forward to solutions – win-win alternatives — for us to grow and thrive.