People or Systems

There’s a popular book for entrepreneurs titled The E-Myth (later titled The E-Myth Revisited, and then a whole host of spin-offs). It focuses on creating a “foolproof, predictable business”—a “systems-dependent business, not a people-dependent business.” The premise of the whole book: if you want to create a successful business that you can sell, you need to minimize your dependence on people and personality. You don’t really want people; you want robots. You’re using people because they’re cheaper.

The book offers several helpful suggestions. I’ve recommended it to many people. But it’s based on a false premise––that the only reason you would create a business is to make money and sell the business (as opposed to all the other possibilities—to create something that’s good and beautiful and contributes to the community, to create meaningful and enjoyable job opportunities…) The book assumes you need a system that requires no subjectivity. You’re managing a mass of people who are expected to check the right boxes. Most of what they do is true or false, sometimes multiple choice, almost never essay response.

This kind of world is a dream for higher-level administrators. If only people and progress could be measured in True or False checkboxes. And at McDonald’s, they mostly can.

But we try to extend this kind of thinking to all kinds of other worlds where it doesn’t fit. We do it because it’s easier to manage by “foolproof” systems than by subjective decision-making. It’s easier to manage one uniform mass than a collection of diverse individuals. So mandatory rules tend to grow exponentially with the size of an organization. When you oversee a large number of people, rules are just easier than subjective judgments.

Of course, this also leads to a lot of stupid rules. I spoke to someone who works in a medical lab about how they have to place expiration dates on items that don’t expire. When the “expiration” runs out, they peel off the piece of tape and re-label with a new, false expiration date. Why? Because administrators four levels up passed a rule that everything had to have an expiration date, no exceptions. If you’ve been in a large organization, you’ve probably experienced something similar.

To set uniform regulations is easy. To know people and their situations––to have open, two-way dialogue with them––is much more difficult and far more time-consuming.

As organizations get larger, this means we’re likely to waste more and more of people’s time. Administrators several levels up pass rules to be uniformly followed, whether they’re beneficial to everyone or not.

This leads to mediocre performance for the organization, as they waste more of their valuable people’s time.

It leads to depleted morale, as employees find themselves doing more meaningless things, less things that really matter. (The person in the medical lab above was lamenting the reduced level of patient care because of the number of silly rules that were instead consuming their time.)

Finally, some of the best performers leave. They’re looking for a place to make a difference, not to check meaningless boxes.

The church is hardly immune to this. It would be much easier for churches to handle discipleship with a foolproof system, much easier for denominational leadership to mandate the same things for all of their clergy. But tending souls is as far from robot-work as anything. We can put the check mark in the right box and congratulate ourselves, but our system may not be having nearly the positive effect we’re assuming.