On Focus Groups and Church

Now think about the Aeron chair. [The focus group participants] say they don’t like the chair, of course they don’t. The chair is nothing they’ve ever seen before, but that was the whole plan in designing the chair. But that’s what’s wonderful about it, that’s why this chair will make billions of dollars for Herman Miller, but it’s also what dooms that chair in the focus group, because people don’t have the language.Market research, when it is observational or when it is interpretative, is profoundly useful. But those are two critical things. They require the intervention of the person conducting the research. They require the findings that are gathered are considered, and thought about, and processed and interpreted… This understanding about what’s so terrible about focus groups ought to pave the way that we manage people. First and foremost, it’s very important for management to trust the creative talent.The second thing is patience. The more breakthrough, the more revolutionary and the more innovative an idea is, the longer it will take for people to come to appreciate it.The third thing is it requires people in management to tolerate uncertainty. The thing that’s driving all this focus-group and market-research data is the desire of people with the management power to make every decision as methodical and thought out and certain as possible.
— Malcolm Gladwell, from the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Account Planning conference keynote

This is no new debate. Focus groups versus knowing what’s best. Playing it safe versus innovating. Boring certainty versus the tension of potentially financially catastrophic uncertainty (or massive profit, depends on how you tend to see the world.)

(Before we begin, i’m not specifically talking about my church in this post, since most of the staff reads this blog. These are broad-sweeping generalizations, so don’t think it’s about you. Unless it is, then carry on.)New spin… I often wonder if the modern American church (meaning, specifically in this instance, the groups of people most often referred to as mega churches, modeled after Saddleback, Willow Creek, Fellowship Church, et al and typically concerned with presentation as much as content) buys into the focus group mentality TOO MUCH.

The entire seeker sensitive movement has brought both good and bad methodology into the mindsets that we tend to operate from in, to use the terminology I hear most often, “the way we do church” This isn’t a surprise; the church is run by humans and we are prone to mistakes, especially of the short-sighted, faddish variety. That being said, sometimes we have really solid ideas too, like actually making something as important as the comings and goings of a community of faith an experience that isn’t mind-numbingly boring. (As if that was our idea and we should be patted on the back for inventing it. I think not.)

It’s a fine line to walk between listening to people’s needs/acting out of that and providing them with something they might not know they need, in a way they might not have thought of, and thereby exceeding their expectations. I always get a little nervous when anyone, myself included, starts talking about church/God/Jesus in business terms, as if it/He/He were products to be sold and we were consumers on the hunt for the best product in the best packaging. That theology is beyond flawed and incomplete.

However, for the sake of this conversation, I do see some parallels between what Gladwell is talking about and how the modern American church has behaved for the last thirty years. Again, these are broad-sweeping generalizations, but sometimes it helps to paint with a big brush. Most everything inside the church walls feels very safe and precise and calculated these days, almost (and this is the artist in me talking, I realize i’m the minority and thinking from one side of this conversation) to a fault, where it occasionally rings with a twinge of inauthenticity. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve re-embraced the notion of excellence (the 17th century would be so proud that we’re so forward-thinking), but somehow turned around and (American) idolized it to the point that we don’t really take chances anymore, we aren’t really creative, and we place too much value on certainty and making sure “it works.” Be creative, but not so creative that you might screw up, or some such nonsense.

To use Gladwell’s example, if Herman Miller lets the market determine the product, we never get the wonderful Aeron Chair… we get a boring (albeit functional and, in almost every way, “perfect”) office chair. Nothing ground-breaking. Nothing special. Nothing that truly impacts the hearts and minds of consumers. Normality that pleases as many people as possible with exactly what they expect. Where’s the fun in that? To use Tom Peters’ terminology, where’s the WOW FACTOR?On a purely personal front, I find Gladwell’s first point, “…it’s very important for management to trust the creative talent,” utterly relevant to the current state of church affairs because for the first time since the Reformation, churches are using artists in more ways than just musically. It is not at all uncommon to find a staff at a typical larger church populated with graphic and web designers, copywriters, theater directors, stage designers, production designers, and highly creative communicators.

On the surface, this seems like a step in the right direction; it looks very much like the church is seeing the value of the arts again. But I wonder what framework most of these artists work and create from? I’m not arguing for free-reign to do whatever they want, they still need to be under authority and accountable to that, but are they trusted? Is the uncertainty surrounding their craft seen as a potential benefit or a threat? Are they punished for average failures and tolerated for their slightly odd successes? Or are they punished for mediocre successes and rewarded for spectacular failures that occured in the throes of trying to innovate, stretch themselves, and do something amazing?

If language like “reward excellent failures” makes you uncomfortable, I’d wager you need to lay off the focus group mentality a little. I find it borderline ludicrous that the church can embrace the business world for their knowledge and books and practices (“they didn’t invent it, so let’s co-opt what works for them and make it work for us”) but then run screaming in the other direction at some of the notions that drive business innovation.Do we pay lip service to creativity and innovation but not really value them? Do we cave in to the majority (who, if you haven’t learned by now, never agree on ANYTHING)? Are we patient, or has the fast food mentality taken root in us so deeply that immediate, quantifiable results are the only thing we’ll tolerate? Do we simply play it too safe?