What can a mechanic do that a manual can’t?
If you own a 1970s-era Honda motorcycle that won’t start, the manual says to first remove the engine covers. A mechanic might counter: Maybe. It’s hesitancy gained from hands-on experience. The value of hands-on experience applies to more than motorcycles. It could help “faith and work” ministries start hitting on all cylinders.
In his 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford writes of the complexities of repairing a Honda motorcycle. Crawford runs a repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. He also has a PhD from the University of Chicago. But it was the repair shop and not the research university that gave Crawford a more comprehensive view of reality.
Crawford discovered the Honda manual ignores the fact that the fasteners holding the covers are Phillips head, “and they are always rounded out and corroded.”1 If each of the ten screws are drilled out and extracted, mechanics risk damaging the engine case—a more expensive repair bill. “The factory service manual tells you to be systematic,” Crawford writes, but hands-on experience introduces mechanics to unanticipated complexities. It makes them better mechanics. This kind of approach to knowledge also makes for better leaders and companies.
In the late 1980s, David McClelland and David Burnham began to notice a profound shift in what characterizes leaders and companies hitting on all cylinders. For decades, the top-down, directive leader was seen as most effective. But beginning in the early 1980s, this “imperial” leadership profile no longer predictably produced top quartile business results or high employee morale. McClellan and Burnham discovered leaders producing top quartile results are now operating by a different type of motive, what they call “interactive” leadership. It is characterized by four actions.
First, interactive leaders return authority. They ask: Who is the authority here? In the workplace, it’s practitioners closest to the work. In auto assembly plants, it’s assembly line workers. They know firsthand the real problems. Second, interactive leaders build mutuality. They demonstrate emotional intelligence by asking these practitioners, “How can we help?” Third, interactive leaders lead change by paradox and complexity. They only understand the complexity of problems because they first listen to practitioners. Fourth, interactive leaders focus on results, fixing practitioner problems. When leaders don’t return authority and build mutuality, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble say they fail to understand paradoxes in problems. Companies instead rely on principles. These principles get published in curricula that fail to grasp the complexity of problems.
Govindarajan and Trimble are professors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and the authors of The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge. They note that businesses are built for efficiency, so leaders depend on predictability and repeatability. When they seek to solve problems, they look to principles that are predictable and repeatable. But Govindarajan and Trimble have discovered that genuine innovation is unnatural and by definition unpredictable and uncertain. They recommend businesses build “dedicated innovation machines” that treat problems as complex and interrelated.2 Real problems don’t fit inside principles. They are paradoxical, complex, and unpredictable—just like the problems the Jews faced in the Babylonian workplace.
In Jeremiah 29, the Jews are sent into Babylonian exile and told to build homes, plant gardens, raise families and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” The Jews were to assist in the flourishing of their Babylonian captors, meaning the Babylonian practitioners were the best authorities for determining which problems needed to be solved. The Jews assisted by building mutuality—helping Babylonians. Gaining firsthand experience with Babylonian problems introduced paradox and complexity into the equation. Also, knowing that they would only flourish as the Babylonians prospered, the Jews kept the focus on getting results.
This isn’t how many “faith and work” ministries operate—and why most are not hitting on all cylinders. The movement is generally curriculum-based and program-driven. I know—I used to write the curricula and run the programs. Interactive leaders on the other hand are problem-based and practitioner-driven. “Faith and work” ministries tout “taking Christ into the workplace” which doesn’t build mutuality with, say, Sprint, since Sprint doesn’t see a lack of “biblical principles for work” as the problem. This is why “faith and work” ministries exhibit little appreciation for the complex problems at, say, Walmart. It loses $2,400,000,000 in employee theft annually. How has the “faith and work” movement assisted in reducing employee theft, one of the largest loss items in Corporate America? To my knowledge, it hasn’t. That’s because the “faith and work” movement relies on an approach to problem-solving derived from the Enlightenment.
Lesslie Newbigin said the Western church has “largely come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.”3 An Enlightenment approach to solving problems is theorists propounding principles and concepts. But these are ways of describing reality from a distance—like writing manuals. Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential Enlightenment man: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”4 He had principles opposing slavery and debt but they were no match for the paradoxes and complexities of the slave trade and money owing. He died a slaveholder, deeply in debt.
The antidote to the Enlightenment is practitioner-based problem solving. That’s how the steam engine was developed. Mechanics at that time observed the complex relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. “This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end,” writes Crawford.5 Much of the “faith and work” movement is unknowingly tied to a conceptual dead end called the Enlightenment. Its principles are simply no match for the paradoxes and complexities of the workplace.
We forget that the Jews would, one day, exit Babylon. If they were the authorities for solving problems in Babylon, the Babylonians were in trouble the day the Jews left. The Babylonians would never flourish over the long haul. They were doomed because the Jews would have fostered dependency rather than furthered shalom. The Jews would not have loved their neighbors—something I also haven’t done. Confession may be good for the soul but it can be bad for the reputation. For decades, I wrote curricula and taught principles trying to help business people bring their faith to work. What I was really doing was fostering dependency—on me. A few weeks back, a C-level leader was in town and asked me to speak to his company. In the past, I’d have presented my portfolio of prepared topics. Instead, I asked him: “How can I help you? What are your top three issues?” After he gave me a bellyful of his bellyaches, I began to see that the paradoxes and complexities of his problems overwhelmed any “biblical principles of work.” He was a mechanic with a granular grasp of reality that manuals lack.
The good news is that my brief interaction with his company seemed to hit on more cylinders than anything I could have done on my own. If the faith community learns to make practitioners the authority, they can begin to bring coherent solutions to complex problems. It’s an approach that makes for better mechanics. It makes better companies. It could help “faith and work” ministries start hitting on all cylinders.
1 Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009), p. 26.
2 “The innovation machine” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.
3 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in christian discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.
4 As cited in Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1991), p. 266.
5 Crawford, Shop Class, p. 22.