Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fractals Revised

Last week I posted about Fractals and leadership, how seemingly messy structures can in fact be quite beautiful and orderly.  Many expressed appreciation, but one reader (who happens to be a math guy) corrected me that my interpretation of fractals was in fact a bit off.  After spending a few hours researching fractals, (thanks largely to this helpful site from Rice University), I agree his critique (that they would look differently based on perspective, they wouldn't) yet think their are leadership lessons to gain from fractals.

On closer reading I realized that Mack (from the Shack) was calling "a mess" not the fractal itself, but the light streaming through the prism of the fractal.  As we know, light can be separated into many colors and the image there presented (as I interpret it) is not so much that the fractal is a mess but the light shining through it.  Seeing that cacophony of light our minds do not see beautiful order but a mess with little to no order.

So what might this have to do with our communities?  I have often encountered situations in leadership where a process has been undertook, a system put into place, that seems completely orderly.  The layers of leadership accountability and structure have been carefully put in place so that good decisions can be made quickly in real time by leaders empowered to do the work they are assigned faithfully.

Invested in getting these structures in place we are convinced that if only you look closer (as my mathematician friend encouraged me) you would be amazed at the intricate and beautifully complex order of the thing.  Yet to the outsider who hasn't been through the process, who only sees the results of the process coming fast and furious (like the many colored light through the prism), the decisions seem too quick, disorderly and even exclusionary.

In a fast moving world, where you are punished for slow decision making it is essential that you have orderly structures in place to make decisions well and quickly. Yet despite your hard work the leader should also be prepared to realize that to those outside, or used to the "traditional" linear structures of leadership, these decisions might seem to be like the light through the fractal, disorderly and "a mess."

This is what makes this work so challenging.  Many of our congregations, cities, civic organizations are weighed down both explicitly and implicitly but structures that discourage change and dis-empower leaders.   These are structures in which those involved are used to taking 2 months to decide how many times a month to cut the grass.

So what is a leader to do? I believe you must first be faithful in building real relationships within your community.  These relationships build trust as you work with your leadership team to construct a new structure that is both contextual and also pushes the context to change.  Then you must train and multiply your leaders to operate within that structure while having flexibility to regularly revise this structure to adapt to this fast changing world.  Finally, you will need patience upon patience to deal with the inevitable charges that, at best, you have created a mess and at worst, that you have been unfaithful and misleading of the community for your own gain.

Ultimately, courage and stamina are needed to sustain the faith that the work you are about, this work that seems so messy to others, is in fact creating that beautiful fractal of a community that is pleasing to God.

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