When Great is the Enemy of Good
Many years ago my then boss had the whole pastoral staff where I worked read the Jim Collins book, From Good to Great. I groaned. I didn’t want to see applications. I’m sure I made some snarky comments (sorry about that Tom). But I will let you in on a secret… I like the book and I actually quote it quite a lot. Messaging about getting the right leadership on the bus, making sure you measure the right things because, like it or not, we work to what we measure, framing your mission correctly to produce the best results, and disciplined following of your purpose with the ability to say no to anything that didn’t fit your mission… all of these have been important take-aways for me.
One of the phrases he uses (related to the name of the book and its predecessor book) is, “Good is the Enemy of Great.” The premise of which is that often we are fine settling with something that is good and never seek to make it great… and it eventually means we are susceptible to languishing in mediocrity. Companies that sustain greatness in their market never settle for being good.
Without saying he isn’t right (because I think he is but that’s another post about another problem), at the same time I want to say the reverse… sometimes – even often – great is the enemy of good. My lens is the life of the church but this is by no means the only place where this can be true. How often do we sit around saying something like, “We need to think about this more before we are ready to do it?” How often do we hold off doing the right thing because we aren’t convinced we can do it well enough… or because we are afraid of failing?
At such times our need to be great – without fail – become the enemy of good… or really of anything at all. We sit around board rooms talking about what we should do, or what we will do, or what other people are doing… but it doesn’t translate into any action at all.
Just this morning (which happens to be International Women’s Day so huge shout out to all the important mentors and friends of mine who are awesome women not to mention my three sisters and three daughters… oh and Caroline who is good and great all rolled up into one) I happened across this video from a TED talk by Reshma Saujani, whose work is inspiring and teaching girls to be computer programmers. The TED talk is on the need to teach girls to be taught bravery and not perfection. Her working premise that boys are taught to be brave: rough and tumble, swing high, get what you want. While we teach girls to be pretty, smile nice, seek perfection, and be cautious. We teach girls perfection, and boys risk-taking accomplishment and this habituates them to those roles. The part that hits me the most is this:
You will see a blank screen and think the girl has spent 20 minutes staring at the screen, until you hit undo a few times and see that she wrote code and deleted it. She tried, she came close, but she didn’t get it exactly right and instead of showing the progress she made, she showed nothing at all. Perfection or bust… it turns out our girls are really good at coding but its not enough to just teach them to code… when guys are struggling they will come in they will say, “Professor, there is something wrong with my code.” But the girls will come in and says, “There is something wrong with me.”
Ouch. And then I connect that dot back to our institutions (for me, the church) because I think we raise our churches like our girls… to think in terms of perfection: pretty, cautious, and flawless. And how crippling is that?
I was taught by a child psychologist that when you take a young child into a room without a parent they will be lost. They will sit in the middle and move nowhere and look at the world with fear. When you put their parent in that room that same child will explore the room. The world is safe. Their world is anchored. Later that child will develop what they call “transitional objects.” A pacifier, a blanket, a stuffed animal… and they will transfer the safe feeling of parent to that object. So as long as they have that object they “have” their parent and they are safe and can explore and engage. But without it? Again… fear.
As we age and mature we develop beyond our need for transitional objects. We have discovered, one way or the other, that the world is safe for exploring or that its fearful and to be avoided. EXCEPT in crisis. In crisis we will revert to our child-like minds. We will revert to fear, need for safety, and caution even if we are normally brave explorers.
I wonder if the mainline church is experiencing the life of “there is something wrong with me” mixed with more than a little of crisis inspired child-like fear of the world around them. We have lost an ability to risk, to engage, to explore, and to play. We are so convinced that we have to be great… that we do nothing until we are sure we can’t fail… and do exactly that from lack of doing anything at all.
In such a world, like Reshma Saujani’s coding classes, we have to simultaneously teach new skills and ideas while changing the wiring of the people we are teaching. We have to inspire brave exploration, and playful experimentation.
I have to constantly relearn this for myself. Two years ago I attended a workshop on 90 second sermons. I got told all the right ways to do it, I got inspired and brought the idea home. But then I got worried. There were several things I needed to do in order to do it “right.” I didn’t want it to flop so I wasn’t going to do it until it was great. For a year and half I just let it go. Then one day out of the blue a colleague and I said, “Let’s do it.” We picked up a camera and filmed a short video sermon teaser and pushed it out. We followed none of the rules. The lighting was poor, the script was non-existent, and there was no time for post-production… and my 90 seconds was 2 and half minutes. UGH. ALL WRONG. But… folk liked it though. It worked. Not great, but ok. The next week I was convinced we needed to get it better. To do it great. To do it right. Guess what? Folk didn’t like it. They said it felt too produced. It was staged. It lacked the easy energy of the first week. What?
You mean you didn’t like great, but you loved it when it was just ok? I could have been doing okay for the last two years?!?!?!?!?!?! Yes. That is exactly what they meant. And I let my fear of something short of perfection hold me back, because sometimes great is the enemy of good.
And I have examples galore… worship videos posted online, my personal attempts to become a runner, changing our worship times, starting a new doxology, producing a completely new bulletin, moving to gluten-free communion bread (ok that was a mess – literally!!! But we will keep working on it and amazingly enough the world still spun even when our bread was crumbling). Every single one of them is an example of something that succeeded only when we stopped worrying about being great. Every single one of them works not because it’s perfect but we because we took the risk to play at it and learn as we go. They work because we not only did things differently but related to it differently at the same time. Play not perfection. Good not great. Doing it, not just thinking it.
There is nothing wrong with us. There is something wrong with our code. And its time to change it. Not perfectly… one small misstep at a time. Risking. Engaging. Exploring…. Together. A brave new world.