Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts - Part 2
Posted by Bill Anderton
In the first part of this series, I wrote about an all-too-common situation; one, I see so often, I have given it the name, “Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts.” As the name implies, this is a situation that, on the surface, appeared to be a very nice gift of service but, in reality, was one that contained the seeds for a less than desirable outcome.
In the previous posting, I described the history of a particular situation within the church of a friend of mine. Although I described my friend’s particular scenario, this set of circumstances could be applied to any number of churches.
In the first part of the series, I described a situation where someone with a great deal of technical prowess, a geek, produced an initial tactical success of producing a nice website but ended up with a strategic failure by having a site that couldn’t be updated with fresh content often enough, or sometimes at all. The battle was won but the war was lost.
In the second part of this series, I am going to discuss why things went wrong; the root of why this turned out as they did.
First, I am a geek myself; a propeller head, a nerd, a boffin. I take pride in the fact and wear the labels proudly. In this series, I’m not picking on anyone; my brother/sister geeks, web committees or the clergy/leadership of churches in these situations. I will indeed be speaking frankly but for educational purposes and with tough love. This particular situation at my friend’s church is classic and presents a teachable moment.
I was also asked to render my opinion. I was asked to analyze the situation and provide a third-party outside opinion of how to break this cycle of poor outcomes at this church in order to provide guidance in the moving in the right direction.
If you haven’t read the first part of this series, please do so now.
My first observation was easy to make and very important. Things at my friend’s church got off to a bad start from the very beginning by assuming that both of the geeks involved in the project knew how to plan websites; that just because they were nerds, both MUST know how to do this correctly.
It may shock some people to learn that simply having technical skills doesn’t mean that you automatically know all of the disciplines required for a planning and executing successful project. As a matter of fact, planning a website (and an online ministry for that matter) uses specialized skills that many geeks might have any experience in performing.
In this case, the lead geek, the Internet consultant, was a software programming specialist; a good one to be sure by all accounts I heard, but one usually working in a very narrow and highly-specialized field. This person had never made a strategic plan for a website before. His professional taskings are typically totally focused on building and/or configuring only the software modules used for websites. His personal experiences never included the planning of a website, only the tactical execution of one.
Having spoken with several members of the web committee, all assumed that since a website was “technical,” that the Internet consultant knew all of its best practices for strategic planning, Because the Internet consultant had never done this before, using the rigor of planning or what the industry calls a “development framework” was completely bypassed. The geek reverted to type and jumped into the middle of things, doing what he knew best, thus bypassing any strategic planning.
Another way to say this was that the cart was placed firmly before the horse.
In a classic work titled "Extreme Chaos,” the Standish Group International did an analysis of 30,000 technical projects in large, medium, and small cross-industry U.S. companies since 1994. Of these projects about 25% failed totally (defined as crashed and burned) and about 50% were classified as "challenged” meaning that they completed but over budget or past the original deadline. Challenge projects on average experienced:
Even in corporations with dedicated professional managers, only about 25% of the projects succeeded!
The study also discovered that when a project failed or challenged, it was rarely for technical reasons. The cited reasons were:
To improve these odds, in corporations and technical development teams, development frameworks are established to make better outcomes; to improve the chances of positive results. Development frameworks are methodologies that capture best practices that allow:
The purposes of development frameworks are to provide guidance for implementing a project. Without vision and planning, it is impossible to have guidance. Lewis Carroll, stated it nicely in Alice and Wonderland:
Alice: “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where …”
Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
It is important to point out that the planning process isn’t solely a technical process and not the sole responsibility of the project’s geeks. While technical planning is one component of the required planning, it is just as much about establishing visions for ministry and its goals. Without these, as the Cheshire Cat pointed out, “it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
Not even my friend’s full Internet committee as a whole would have likely been capable of providing this part of the necessary planning by themselves without additional guidance. Clergy and church leaders should have been involved in this phase of planning because envisioning an online ministry implies discernment and discernment is too important NOT to have clergy and church leaders involved in the process to provide additional voice in the spiritual matters. It is not that the committee couldn't consider spiritual matter, it just needed a broader conscientious on such important matters.
Too often, clergy and church leaders are hoping for the “silver bullet” that produces a great website or an online ministry without getting very involved in the process; without getting their hands too dirty. This is understandable and reasonable if you begin with the false assumption that everything in the planning process is solely a technical discipline. However, put in the context of needing to keep the spiritual aspects of a website in the forefront, active roles in planning become much more palatable; more within the bailiwick of clergy and church leaders.
I will write in future blog posting about development frameworks as applied to churches planning Internet presences and online ministries. I personally use a well-documented one that was originally developed from within the web-development industry that, additionally, I have modified for churches and the all-important discernment processes.
It is important to state that the use of development frameworks do not and should not be excuses for long drawn-out overly-bureaucratic processes. With a properly focused group of leaders, it is possible to build an excellent strategic plan for an online ministry in just a week or two. I often lead workshop-style retreats to do these in two six-hour sessions. I deliberately break up the workshop into two sessions, done on different days with perhaps a week in apart, to allow time for the prayerful reflection of discernment.
In my friend’s church, if proper planning and a development framework had been used, many of the negative outcomes could have been identified, addressed and likely avoided.
For example, it could have been easily identified that updates of the content for the various church ministries needed to be performed rapidly and frequently. Once identified, this “given” could have been addressed. One approach to dealing with the requirement might have been to address it systematically by requiring the development of user interfaces that would have allowed the content authors to post their own updates. Or, at least, it would have identified that the webmaster must be committed to doing updates several times a week, every week on a timely basis!
A proper planning process, embodied in a proper development framework can identify and eliminate many issues before they become problems. Also, and most important of all, they will embody the vision for your online ministry,. be it large or small, before you begin implementing the plan. Once discerned and envisioned, it is easy for the geeks to then start showing you what might be technically possible tactically within your established givens. With the completed planning, your creative people and your geeks can execute the vision with guidance that has a great chance of living up to its expectations.
In Part 3, tomorrow, I will write about other observations from my friend’s situation.
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