The Middle Phase

In 2015, Heather and I (Marc) were wrestling through what our next step as a family was.  We sensed God leading us away from a church and community that we were extremely comfortable in.  We had friends and support systems. We loved the city and we loved the people. We thought we’d retire there.  However, it became crystal clear that God was moving us away from the comfortable toward an unknown future.

The unknown isn’t bad.  The unknown is simply uncomfortable.  

In August of 2015, we found ourselves driving through Northwest Indiana with a couple of shady characters, Tom and Sarah Cochran.  We stopped at a Merrillville Elementary School, Salk Elementary School. While walking around, I was praying the whole time.

I don’t use this term flippantly.  I sensed God leading us to Northwest Indiana to start a church that unchurched (we define “unchurched” as people who have never gone to church, people who have stopped attending church, find church to be irrelevant or feel like the church has given up on them) people would want to attend.  Herein lies the problem and the challenge. The reality of any business is that any long term success comes when people who don’t currently use your product start using your product.

Business leaders, we must realize we aren’t selling products.  We are selling solutions to problems. You might be selling drill bits today, but once someone discovers a new more efficient way to make holes with accuracy, your drill bit business will be scrambling for business.  As a church leader, I face the same issues.

It’s so tempting to think that our organization is selling or offering a product.  I’d encourage you to think through what problem your organization solves and how you can leverage your organization to solve problems.    

As you start the adventure of exploring what problems your organization solves and offer solutions for them, you might start a new ad campaign or you might discover your products don’t actually offer solutions to any problems, so you revamp your product line.  You might realize that there is a completely different market in the process. You also might discover that your passion isn’t in this field and start a new adventure in a different field. No matter what, there is a rhythm that most likely will take place. There will be a launch phase, a middle phase and a peak phase.  The key to finding lasting success is repeating this process in the right time.

Plenty has been written about the launch and peak phases.  I’ve not come across a lot of material on the middle phase however.  I find myself leading an organization in the early stages of the middle phase.  

As we do this, there is a fun part of the process.  At the launch of any new business or church, there is a lot of energy…then the middle phase hits.  Expenses build up and you spend the same amount of energy and money attempting to generate the same amount of results you accomplished in the launching phase…and It just doesn’t happen.  

You must create more energy.  

Actually, what I have found is that we should create systems instead of products and campaigns.  Systems take a long time, a LONG time to get started. The beautiful thing about systems is that once they are up and running, they will accomplish more results than you ever expected.  

Rich Birch, a seasoned church leader who has served in three innovative culture-shaping churches, uses the example of a flywheel or a merry-go-round.  In the beginning, it seems that nothing is going to the thing moving, but when you stick with it, momentum starts to build up. After a while, momentum takes over and eventually keeping that momentum going isn’t difficult.  

A leader should be strategic and intentional about when to interject to keep the momentum going once the systems are in place and creating momentum.   

This is exactly what happens when the right systems are at work for any organization.  

In the middle phase of the process, the most important and yet most difficult questions to answer are “which systems do you put energy into?”  

I love watching productivity increase while mistakes and process defects decrease.”

You might just have a solution that would solve their problems, but they don’t know you offer it, because of how busy you might be at improving your system.  If you aren’t careful, that focus will be the end of your organization.

We might be working at improving our systems and miss a huge opportunity right in front of us.  In the 90’s, there wasn’t a weekend that I didn’t head to the local Blockbuster Store to rent a movie.  When I was in college in the early 2000’s, I spent most of my Saturdays doing the same thing. I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie rented from Blockbuster.  Why is that?

There was a little start up in 2000 called Netflix.  Founder, Reed Hastings, approached Blockbuster’s CEO John Antioco about purchasing Netflix.  Blockbuster didn’t see the potential in Netflix. They couldn’t see that there would be a new way of watching movies in the near future.  They were focused on improving their systems within Blockbuster and they missed a chance of a lifetime.

Blockbuster filed bankruptcy in 2010 and now Netflix is no longer a fledgling startup.  They have moved well beyond that. They are assessed as a $28 billion company which just happens to be 10 times what Blockbuster was worth!  

The laws of thermodynamics remind us that any system left in isolation will always reduce to zero.  Entropy always increases in an isolated system. The beautiful thing about that law states that any system can come back to life by introducing a new life.  (And all the sales people rejoiced!)

I have a tendency toward creating systems.  I use my time and resources to ensure I have the right systems in place to reduce waste, increase productivity and become efficient.  This simply helps me manage assets we have as an organization. This is a worthy cause. It’s necessary.

I’ve learned, however, that if I am not intentional about ‘selling’ RE.THINK Church (sounds worse than it is), new life will not get introduced into our system.  So, I intentionally put myself in places and environments to tell others about RE.THINK Church.

I refer to these places as my “tribes”.  Author and marketing Jedi master, Seth Godin defines a tribe as a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.  I am heavily involved in the chamber of commerce in our community. I spend a lot of time at luncheons and networking events. I am part of a community within the chamber called, EPIC (Engaging Professionals Inspiring Change).  I love telling the story of RE.THINK. I love connecting with these people.  

I also spend time at a local coffee shop.  Connecting with the baristas and the other regulars helps me tell the story of RE.THINK in our community as well.  I’m actually writing this blog in this coffee shop right now.

Each Wednesday, I have lunch with a group of fifth graders at Merrillville Intermediate School. Here’s a blog I wrote about that experience. As a church, we have adopted MIS to love on. We bring snacks to the teachers throughout the year.  The generosity of the people of RE.THINK is poured into our community in various ways like providing lunches for the teachers and staff of MIS.

I’d encourage you to find opportunities within your community that you could simply tell the story of your organization.   

The best method of telling your story starts with identifying problems people face that your organization offers solutions for.  

As a church, we have identified that people are searching for solutions for such problems as hopelessness, isolation, judgmentalism and loneliness. Many people also feel that they are simply a cog in a machine, living for a paycheck.  The solution we offer people is to engage with RE.THINK Church where a person has the opportunity to find hope, community and purpose.

I do honestly believe that RE.THINK Church is the best church in our area for people who are looking for a safe place to explore their faith.  It is the best church for someone looking for community to connect with and to find purpose in their life beyond a paycheck. I remind myself that RE.THINK Church’s vision is from God.  That vision is to help unchurched people explore their faith and mature in a relationship with Jesus.

We’ve created systems within our church’s organization that offer solutions to these problems.

I bet you believe the same thing about the solutions your organization offers as well.  

Certain days it feels like I am running in circles.  I am continually putting my figurative “salesperson” hat on, taking it off 15 minutes later and putting on my figurative “systems” hat.  

This is the story of most entrepreneurial people.  If we spend all of our time catering to current customers without being aware of people who don’t currently use our services to solve their problems, we might have extremely efficient systems but no customers.  

If we ignore systems, we might have an amazing amount of customers, but it might cost us more money, energy and effort to keep them than it should.  Eventually, our inefficiency will cost us customers.

There is a double-edge sword here.  Seth Godin, reminds us that it costs us more to generate new customers than to get an already existing customer to reengage or buy again.  Remember, we shouldn’t be selling products, we should be offering solutions to people’s already existing problems.

The challenge for us entrepreneurial people is that we must wear both hats of the salesperson and systems person.  How long and often we wear each hat is determined by our current reality.

The middle phase of any venture, in my opinion, is the most difficult to push through.  I believe breakthroughs, innovations and advancements have been missed by millions of people because they gave up in the middle phase of a venture.  The middle phase is where thousands of great dreams, inventions, skill sets and innovations lay because people gave up in the middle of the process.

This is even true for people who aren’t necessarily looking to start a new organization but maybe a new habit or skill set.  There will still be a launch phase, middle phase and a peak. I believe that people might miss the opportunity to develop new skill sets because of the middle phase.  

Let’s use the idea of creating a system to help crush the middle phase.  

For example, a leader encourages an employee to give a presentation at the next staff meeting.  The employee is nervous but does it. Everyone comments on how great the presentation was. The employee believes for a minute that she could give more presentations in the future.  This would be a great skill to have as she was hoping to advance in the company. She gives the next presentation and people comment, but not as vocally about how great the first one was.  The employee finds herself a little discouraged. She’s asked to give a third presentation. As she considers it, she decides to do it but doesn’t get her hopes up. She believes it’s not going to be as great as the first one.  So, she goes through the motions of the presentation. No one comments good or bad. She decides that must mean she’s not good at giving presentations. So when she’s asked in the future to give presentations, she brushes the opportunity off because she doesn’t want to set herself up for failure or disappointment.  

So what is needed in this scenario?  The answer is simple. A system.

They need a system that will enable them to push through the middle phase.  Remember, it’s easier to stay in the comfort of the known. The unknown isn’t bad.  The unknown is simply uncomfortable.

The innovator or inventor who gives up in the middle phase of a process should set a system in place that rewards him for accomplishments.  They could be arbitrary rewards, but rewards are still rewards. Who doesn’t want a reward?

I remember a time when I was in the middle phase of revamping a production system.  This process was a long one, like 10 months of innovations, trials and testing processes etc. The company I worked for followed the PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) system.

I decided to break down the end goal into attainable steps.  I also decided to mentally break the processes into steps that would allow me to test any and all options.  My reward system was not based on how many successes we discovered as a team, but on how many options we tried.  If we as a team tried at least five options per week, I bought everyone on my team orange Hostess cupcakes from the vending machine.  If we tried ten options, then I bought everyone pizza. When we found what worked along the way, everyone got a five minute longer lunch break.  Eventually we changed gears and our reward system was based on finding success.

Like so many leaders have pointed out, great is the enemy of good.  In the early phase, we needed to find good not great or perfect. In this scenario, we continually improved on our changes.  We realized that continually improving was the key, not perfection. This is also known as kaizen.  

The same system could be modified for the person who is stepping out to start a new venture or company.  Creating a reward system based on how many customers you call or how many flea markets you set up your booth at.  I have created a system throughout my week that once I meet with three leaders in my organization for the purpose of leadership development, I allow myself to watch youtube videos for 15 minutes throughout my workday.  

The Middle is brutal.  It’s relentless.

So, for the employee who is wanting to acquire a new skill set that would help her in her promotion path, she would need to create a system that allows her to develop her skills in a safe environment.  Employers who help create those safe environments will benefit tremendously as well. If she will find moments throughout her week to work on small aspects of a skill set, it will lend to massive development in a year.  

Let’s take the skill of giving a presentation. There are so many skills that could be developed in weekly chunks.  For example, the art of breathing while giving a presentation, the pace of speech so that you’re engaging, but not speaking too fast that no one can keep up or the tension of looking at notes too much or not using notes at all.

I think the tension comes because people become disappointed that success doesn’t happen right away.   Why? The middle phase is brutal, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

Taking the time to create a system helps us push through the middle phase.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The Middle Phase

  1. Thanks for sharing. I will probably use ‘The unknown isn’t bad. The unknown is simply uncomfortable’ at some point in the future. My work tribe tends to avoid the uncomfortable. Yet, as a triathlete, my workout buddies tend to live for that which pushes the boundaries of comfort. Peculiar. Best to you as you push through the middle at RE.THINK.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.