This post is excerpted from Culture Wins: The Roadmap to an Irresistible Workplace.
Here’s an interesting tidbit I’ve learned: Chaos can be culture’s friend. Let me explain.
We have seven children and we run our home a bit like a military base. Sometimes when the kids have friends over for sleepovers, those friends often want to grab something from the pantry for a snack. But Adrienne and I respond with, “The kitchen’s not open right now.” We have a high-level routine. By the same token, you can’t wind the kids so tight that they experience routine 24/7. That doesn’t work, either.
Churches and organizations are no different. You need a certain day-to-day routine, but when that routine never changes, your office culture will suffer. You don’t want an office in perpetual, utter chaos—that’s not healthy. However, you have to be open to occasional chaos. This is a learned lesson. I didn’t go up on a mountain to find it, and it didn’t suddenly come to me through an intentional reflection process.
A while back, we had a request from one of the larger churches in the country. They needed help finding a children’s pastor. Their recruiting system was set up so they performed interviews about once every quarter. Well, a children’s pastor is one of the hardest church searches to conduct.
The main reason is that there aren’t enough children’s pastors to go around. They’re also expected to do a lot for a very small salary, and they often don’t make enough money to justify moving their family across the country.
This church was asking us to do the hardest search there was. Knowing how difficult the task would be, we swallowed hard and said, “Yes, we’ll do it.” Then they said, “Okay, here’s the other part: We’re going to need our short list of candidates in a week.”
Our process usually takes eight to ten weeks, and we had no idea how we could pull this off in a week. On the other hand, we were so honored that a church this size would hire us. We maintained our agreement to find them the candidates they needed—we said yes, and chaos ensued.
Our team dropped what we were doing, put our heads in a huddle, and got to work. Within a week, we had their group of finalists. From that group, they found a match for the job, and it ended up being a great hire. That experience became a testimonial on our website and an awesome example of how temporary chaos enriched our culture.
Looking back at that experience, I realize how closely we pulled together and functioned as a “framily.” All of our cultural values came out during that week and showed us what was possible. Five years later, when we got a call from another large church with a request for another difficult search with an equally ridiculous deadline, I knew we could do it, and the benefits for my team were worth the risk.
Again, we huddled together, and the same thing happened. Everyone pitched in, and our culture rose to the top. It was like we were a young start-up again. Our success with that search was due to the creativity of my team. Calling on that creativity was their job. My job was to pull back and allow that creativity to happen, and that’s when every one of our values came into play.
It was one of those moments I look for when I define our culture: When we’re functioning at our very best, what are we doing that’s uncommon to most organizations, and that’s common to us? Accepting chaos—that’s where our team’s culture thrives.
The first time I said yes, we were so new and so hungry—and the client was such a big church—that we had to give it a try. The second time, five years later, we were a bit more established and fairly well known. Rather than take on the search, do a bad job, and damage our reputation, the smart thing might have been to take a pass and simply say no. Instead, I remembered how much good that kind of challenge did our team and decided to throw a little chaos their way. I think leaders would do well to think twice before they turn down chaos. It may be exactly what you need to help your culture.
Sometimes it’s the leader’s job to accept chaos, but you don’t have to wait around for the biggest church to call you or for an impossible project to fall in your lap. As a leader, you can infuse a little chaos into your employees’ experience to force them to live out the cultural values.
Ed Young, a friend and pastor at Fellowship Church in Dallas, has been known to have his leadership team sit in a circle where he gives them the following instructions: “Everybody move one chair to the left.” This activity changes the roles of the people on his team.
Another of my friends was the executive pastor at his church one year, the student pastor the next year, and then he went back to a senior leadership role the following year, due to Ed interjecting a little bit of chaos.
You can replicate this activity to challenge your people to take on different roles and accept a little chaos. You can also take on an impossible project or accelerate a deadline. However, the chaos must be temporary—it can’t be sustained, or you’ll burn people out. Be discerning in your decisions to interject chaos and know when to let things rest. People do like routine. They like order. But every now and then, a little disruption helps.