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Learning from Googlers

By Jeremy Steele

Google is one of the most successful and innovative companies in history. Currently, Google has 53,000 employees and is worth around $330 billion. The company is working on self-driving cars and its own social network and is offering free Internet through blimps over developing countries.

What insights could a company like that offer the average church that has one to three staff members, a budget definitely not in the billions and a focus on reconciling people with God? A whole lot. It turns out that before people relied on Google maps, when the Google team was much smaller and when Google was not close to profitable, the company established some cultural priorities that fueled innovation and success — fuel that would work well in most church engines.

People are the No. 1 asset.

Google understands that people are its No. 1 asset and goes over the top caring for its people. The company provides food, childcare and a host of other services to make sure the team feels supported and appreciated.

As a church, we need to have the same priority. Anyone who serves in the church is on the team and needs to be cared for and appreciated. This does not have to cost a lot of money. Simple, heartfelt actions can express appreciation. Here are some ideas:

  • If a leader is ill, ask everyone who serves with him or her to write a note on colored paper and ask a local florist to donate floral cardholders to make a “note bouquet.”
  • During your next leader meeting, recruit a couple of neighborhood kids or youth from your church to wash all the cars in the parking lot that evening.
  • Ask Sunday school classes to prepare a casserole for the leaders returning from a youth retreat.
  • Select a group to be your “people team” and find creative ways to say “thanks” and help your leaders when things get tough.

Release quick iterate often.

Google believes the best way to make a great product is to release a good one and improve it. Rather than trying to get every detail of every piece perfect, Google releases a beta version that is far from its ideal, knowing Google can continually improve it. Google employees have discovered that they cannot know how the final version should look until they see how people use it. As soon as they release the unfinished version, they begin evaluating and iterating.

Our churches are the same. We do not need to wait until something is perfect to try it. We can launch beta versions, especially if we get in the habit of iterating quickly and continually.

There is definitely a place for big, yearly evaluations, but just as important is the weekly, “What was good/bad? How can we improve next week?” questioning. How do you start?

  1. Find a couple of people who are good at spotting ways you can improve and ask them if you can chat for about 10 minutes after your service, group time or study.
  2. Ask them what went well or poorly and try to get an actionable item for improvement next week.
  3. Keep the meeting short. If big issues crop up, schedule a follow-up meeting. If you keep the meeting short, you will be more likely to get actual feedback.
  4. Try to make the follow-up meeting longer (about an hour) every month or two to think about bigger ideas and ways to improve.

Freedom to innovate

Google may be most famous for its 20-percent-time rule. The idea is that anyone on the team gets 20 percent of his or her time at work to use on a personal-choice project as long as Google can own it. Many of the services you use every day like Gmail and Docs resulted from this policy.

This represents Google’s commitment to trying new things and creating new ideas. The best way to grow and maintain relevance in your community is to encourage everyone to try new things and reach out with new ideas. It means asking your leaders to brainstorm new outreach, worship ideas and so forth and then giving them permission to do it.

The reality is that the best ideas in your church are most likely half-baked in a leader’s head, and if you release that leader to innovate and iterate, you will discover it.

One of John Wesley’s most effective discipleship tools (the class meeting) was a result of just this. In 1742 a group of Methodists were trying to devise a method for paying off some building debt in a town called Bristol. One of the leaders (Captain Foy) suggested that everyone be divided into groups of twelve to collect a weekly penny donation to go towards debt reduction. They appointed one leader to go around and collect the weekly donations, and to their surprise this small-group division ended up being a profound ministry innovation. Wesley took the concept, tweaked it, replicated it and soon it became the driving force of discipleship in the Methodist Church.