One of my favourite radio programmes is More Or Less, the show about statistics presented by economist Tim Harford. If I have a quibble with it, it’s that it so clearly feels the need to undercut its radicalism – the radicalism that comes from the mere business of challenging received wisdom, usually at the expense of politicians who’ve plucked this or that dubious statistic that neatly confirms their own viewpoint - with whimsy, which it just doesn’t need to do.
There’s little of that in Mr Harford’s 2011 book Adapt, which I’ve just finished. There are anecdotes, a great many of them, little economic parables that often include humour, but they are all there to make a serious point about the way organisations and ultimately individuals themselves cope with changing circumstances. The world is massively, and increasingly, complex, says Mr Harford. In a situation of such complexity, how do we best ensure the inventiveness and adaptation that will produce solutions to our global, and local, problems? His answer is to decentralise decision-making, to embrace the certainty that most of our ideas will fail, to measure, to evaluate, and not to deceive ourselves about the things we get wrong.
The book is lightly and lucidly written and great fun to read. It would be a mistake to draw too many narrowly political conclusions from its thesis, as while it makes a strong case for a capitalist economy as the best means of encouraging innovation, it doesn’t argue that capitalism has a moral basis rooted in human nature, nor make any endorsement of the kind of world we live in at the moment, a free market which is neither truly free nor truly a market. Instead I found myself thinking how Adapt’s argument applied to the Church, which is why I bought the book in the first place.
If what organisations need is a decentralised structure whose top management devotes itself less to making decisions which aim at controlling the organisation on the ground than to setting the tone and establishing vision and purpose, the Church of England would seem to be an almost exemplary instance. Its ten thousand-or-so parishes have almost complete operational independence and, to be fair, this does result in a great deal of innovative practice on the ground as individual churches come up with new ways of trying to respond to the changes of the society around them, rooted in the circumstances of their own local contexts. It is exactly the sort of thing Harford argues should be going on.
There are, however, three areas in which the Church fails to embody the model, it seems to me. The first is that the management doesn’t spend a great deal of its time establishing a sense of purpose and direction. To be fair, it might not have that much effect even if they did. The Church of England, riven as it is by sectarian differences (although we tend to be quite polite about them), is a difficult beast to influence precisely because of that radical localism and decentralisation. Until relatively recently, thanks to the ‘parson’s freehold’, it was almost impossible for bishops to lever out a priest who was failing or even damaging his parish community; now freehold is dying out (I was one of the last incumbents in the diocese to receive it), but a bishop still can’t do very much to affect life in a particular parish. Equally, we have a tendency to be a bit dismissive of senior management whose outlook we don’t share, and not without some justification, as it’s possible to travel up the hierarchy from an Evangelical parish to be an Evangelical bishop without having to have much experience of or sympathy with different visions of Church life (the same applies to Anglo-Catholics, of course).
Secondly, we aren’t very good at questioning what we do in the right way. Harford argues that organisations have to generate a culture of challenge and self-questioning, and wise managers build this in to the structure. On the one hand Anglicans are often a bit too nice to tell each other blankly, ‘You’ve got this wrong’. On the other hand, in the absence of a clear and articulable sense of purpose for the organisation as a whole, when there is disagreement over a decision or initiative it tends to emerge from personality clashes which are then dressed up as an ideological difference, usually over something which the participants in the quarrel tell themselves is very important but which is actually marginal to the life of the Church as a whole – modern hymns or the clothing of ministers or this or that interpretation of the Bible, and so on. As a result, a lot of heat tends to be generated with very little light.
Thirdly, we are horribly bad at evaluating our initiatives, and thus working out whether they’ve failed or not. This is partly because we draw the wrong lesson from the Scriptures’ insistence that God so often reverses human value judgements: St Paul sums it up in the First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘God chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong’. We tell ourselves this means that apparent failure is not the point. At Swanvale Halt altHalta couple of months ago we were trying to work out what to do with a post-school children’s group whose attendance had been dwindling for years: only one child was booked up for the coming term. ‘It’s worth doing it just for that child!’ one of the passionately committed volunteers told me. It wasn’t; that attitude prevented us seeing the fact that the reason parents weren’t sending their children to the group was that it was based at the church, meaning they had to bring them from school, then come back an hour later to pick them up. We moved the group to the local junior school so parents only had to make one trip, and attendance went back up to a healthy 6-10 or so.
Get this right, and the Church of England would of course be perfect ...