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One of the most common questions I hear when interacting with mission leaders about the challenges they are facing is “How are other organizations handling this situation?” Church leaders ask similar questions when they have opportunity to interact with pastors from other congregations. That is a natural and logical place to start when attempting to solve problems or seize opportunities.

The process of comparing one’s operational processes and performance metrics with other organizations is commonly referred to as benchmarking. In the world of business the focus is on time, quality and cost metrics with a goal of learning how to produce results faster, better and cheaper. The objective is to identify and emulate best practices so as to increase effectiveness.

Benchmarking is an important exercise that should be widely embraced as a means of collaborative learning for church and mission organizations. But I am also convinced that benchmarking rarely produces breakthrough innovation.

Benchmarking helps organizations evaluate performance but it is not a reliable source of breakthrough innovation. Copycat creativity can help you keep up with the pack but it is not likely to transform you into a pace setter. “Let’s be clear: We are living in the age of disruption. You can’t do big things anymore if you are content with doing things a little better than everyone else, or a little differently from how you’ve done them in the past.”31

Mission organizations receive helpful feedback when they evaluate how long it takes their new appointees to raise support in comparison with other agencies. Similarly, churches benefit from benchmarking when they compare the percentage of people they have in small groups with other healthy churches. But this kind of benchmarking exercise is not going to produce a paradigm busting new idea on funding the Great Commission for mission agencies or cultivate richer body life for churches.

“Most leaders see things the same way everyone else sees them because they look for ideas in the same places everyone else looks for them.”32 Traditional benchmarking often serves to reinforce the problem of tunnel vision that prevents leaders from seeing and embracing new ideas. If game-changing reinvention of your industry is needed you will have to move beyond traditional benchmarking to interdisciplinary learning.

Interdisciplinary Learning

Leaders who cultivate interdisciplinary learning have the humility and curiosity required to engage new ideas from outside their field along with the disciplined imagination to extrapolate what they are learning for application in their own context. The classic example of interdisciplinary learning comes from a 1912 visit Henry Ford made to a Chicago slaughterhouse. He carefully observed each worker performing his job with the carcasses hanging on hooks that were attached to an overhead pulley. After completing a specific task with the meat the worker pushed the carcass to the next station. At the conclusion of the tour the guide asked Henry Ford what he thought. He responded saying, “I think you have given me a real good idea.” Less than six months after visiting the slaughterhouse Henry Ford had applied the idea to his context and was producing magnetos in the Ford Highland Park Plant.

Commerce Bank, which now operates under the umbrella of TD Bank, is known as “America’s most convenient bank.” If you’re like me, your instinct would be to say convenient bank is an oxymoron. But they were committed to completely redefining customer service and innovation in a banking context. They knew traditional benchmarking would never enable them to leap frog their competition and delight their customers. So they didn’t evaluate themselves against Citigroup or Wells Fargo. They embraced interdisciplinary learning by studying “power retailers” like Starbucks and Best Buy.

Vernon Hill, the founder of Commerce Bank, says, “Every great company has reinvented the industry it is in. So we did not copy the stupid banks. We copy great retailers.”33 And in doing so they unleashed one crazy idea after another such as seven-day-a-week service, free coin-counting machines, and many other examples generated by their Wow! Department.

In spite of the fact these new ideas were hugely popular with their customers they were incomprehensible to their competitors. Expanding their operating hours during the week and on weekends has been viewed as heretical in the banking industry. Vernon Hill says the first question other bankers ask him is, “How do you staff on the weekends?” His typical response is, “Wal-Mart stays open. The malls stay open. How hard can it be?”34

The Wall Street Journal chronicled the journey of London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. They were renowned for cardiac care but struggled with transition points in the flow of patient care that produced complications, errors and even deaths. Dr.’s Martin Elliot and Allan Goldman, the heads of cardiac and pediatric intensive care, applied a very creative form of interdisciplinary learning, by studying the pit crew of Ferrari’s Forumla One racing team.

The doctors actually worked with the pit crew at their base in Modena, Italy, in the pits of the British Grand Prix and at the Great Ormond Street hospital operating room and intensive care ward. The pit crew noticed the lack of clear leadership and noisy distractions. This unlikely group of collaborators redesigned the handoff procedure and greatly reduced the rate of medical errors.

Lift and Shift

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, describes this model of interdisciplinary learning as “lift and shift.” This new logic for innovation hunts for ideas in unrelated fields and then lifts them out of one context and shifts them into another. Charles Kenny recounts an example of lift and shift in his book The Best Practice. Dr. Robert Mecklenburg of Virginia Mason was engaged in interdisciplinary learning at Toyota City in Japan. In a meeting with a Japanese quality master he was exploring options for optimizing space so they could add more operating rooms.

In looking over a floor plan of the hospital the quality master asked about one room that caught his attention and was told by Dr. Mecklenburg it was a waiting room. He went on to explain the room is needed because the average patient spends approximately forty-five minutes before he or she can see a doctor. The quality master inquired further and discovered there were nearly one hundred such waiting rooms in the hospital. The Japanese quality master sat in silence for a moment and then said, “You have a hundred waiting areas where patients wait an average of forty-five minutes for a doctor?” Then after a pregnant pause he added, “Aren’t you ashamed?”35

Only then did Dr. Mecklenberg begin to think about the wasted space and time represented by these one hundred rooms. You don’t get that level of introspection and self-evaluation from traditional benchmarking, by comparing yourself to other hospitals.

Some of you might be thinking, “Steve, thanks for the business lecture but what does this have to do with us?” My answer is, “A lot.” I have a growing conviction based on my interaction with church and mission leaders that we are in a season of deep change that requires more than incremental improvements of the status quo. And the game-changing innovation we are hungry for will almost certainly require Holy Spirit empowered interdisciplinary learning.

A Radical Experiment

I’d like to offer what for some of you might be a radical experiment. Make a list of godly, high capacity leaders you know who operate completely outside the church or mission world. Invite them to come spend a day examining your systems and processes. You might consider having different leaders engage with different parts of your organization. Encourage them to ask questions and challenge assumptions without reservation. Invite them to speak into your journey with a lift and shift mentality.

Then in part two of the exercise, pick a few of these same leaders and ask if you can spend a day in their context with the same objectives in mind. You might be thinking, “I know these are smart people but they don’t know anything about the uniqueness of our field.” And I say, “That’s the whole point!”

And one more thing, while you’re interacting with these leaders ask them to give you one periodical and one book every effective leader in their field of service needs to read. Pick up a copy of each and take your interdisciplinary learning skills to the next level. Benchmarking is a helpful performance evaluation tool, but it isn’t going to drive breakthrough innovation. That’s why you need to practice the lift and shift of interdisciplinary learning.

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