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Ed Jordan: Adapt or Burst!

Posted: 4/6/18 at 9:45am. Column by Ed Jordan.

Have you noticed? The world is changing. In the time it takes you to read these three sentences, thousands of changes have occurred in your world. Many of the changes are incidental, like the options you can choose from a menu. But there are other changes that have life-changing ramifications. For those of us who are involved in leading organizations—whether they are churches, businesses, schools, or military groups—the changes are fast and furious, and the familiar systems of old cannot keep up with the speed and number of the changes.

Think of the way listening to music has changed since there were old 78s. Now we just download songs, and a lot of people don’t even know what a 78 is. Google and Wikipedia have replaced the Encyclopedia Britannica. Out with the percolator and in with the K-cup. Innovation, information, and change occurs so rapidly that many of us struggle to keep up.

Those in leadership positions today often feel like the little boy who tried to stop the flood of water from the dike by sticking his thumb in the hole.

The amount of information and the speed of change cannot be held back, nor can it be stopped.

The amount of information and the speed of change cannot be held back, nor can it be stopped.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has written a new book (Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World) to discuss some of the challenges of being a leader in the rapidly changing world we find ourselves in today. One of Gen. McChrystal’s principles, shared by Tod Bolsinger at a recent conference, is: “Adaptability is the key attribute of leadership today.” The major role of leaders in the 20th century was to manage the plans, programs, and resources of an organization in order to keep it viable and healthy. Managers try to conserve the system as is. They often seek win/win solutions to problems, keeping system harmony through giving each group something they want or need.

However, a new set of skills and techniques are required of 21st century leaders. We must be adaptive. We must help the organization to be continually learning, changing, and adapting, and thus to stay relevant in fulfilling its mission. Adapting requires finding new ways to do things, new ways to organize, or even new ways to get the job done without building an organizational structure. Organizations now must seek to become flexible enough to adapt to the new challenges of quickly deciding and moving to carry out the mission.

The focus is on accomplishing the mission by using flexible methodology, thought processes, and personnel empowerment in order to adapt and accomplish the mission. The mission will not always go as planned. Often between the planning time and execution of the plan, many major factors have already changed. To succeed in carrying out the mission, one must be able to make decisions on the fly and adapt in midstream, and the systems must flex with those decisions.

Jesus spoke of our need for this adaptability in his parable of the wineskins. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t fast and follow all the religious rules that they and the Pharisees did. Jesus responded in Matthew 9:17 (NLT): “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new wineskins so that both are preserved.” New wine is still fermenting and expanding. Much like our world, it is in flux and change. Jesus said that you don’t put new wine in the old containers—or the old systems—because the stress and pressure of the new causes the old to split and break. New wine needs new systems.

If old systems are going to be able to utilize new wine, they must become flexible and adaptable. If old systems are rigid and unwilling to adapt, then new, lively, fermenting wine will destroy the old container, losing both the container and the new product. To do new things, we must adapt our systems and participants to be flexible enough to collaborate with new, lively expressions.

Addressing new needs and challenges with obsolete systems, thinking, or functioning is self-defeating. New wine requires new thinking, new systems, and new adaptive, flexible functioning. The word for 21st century churches and organizations is, “Be flexible and adapt.”

ed-jordan2Award-winning columnist Dr. Ed Jordan is pastor of Gwynn’s Island Baptist Church, Gwynn, VA. You may also read his past columns.

He can be reached at szent.edward@gmail.com.