The Three R’s

I was in Dothan for a wedding. That’s Dothan, AL, not the Biblical one. The rehearsal dinner and the wedding reception took place in an event venue that used to be the Covington Planter Company factory. As I sat in what used to be a manufacturing facility eating wedding cake, I was struck by the way people and things change their purpose and function over time.

Life is not a continuous flow in one direction. Life is a series of cycles: birth, life, decay, death, and rebirth. Often the three R’s of learning are referred to as reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. But today, the three R’s I’m thinking about are Role, Resistance, and Relevance. Within each of our lives and our organizations, there are likely to be several cycles where there is a role change, resistance, and a struggle for relevance.

Everyone will experience change. The building I was sitting in that Saturday in Dothan was built to house a manufacturing company. It was designed to be industrial space. And for years, it was. It functioned well in its capacity. Then things changed. Things that were external to the building itself. It was no longer needed for its original function.

This happens to people too. If nothing else, we all age and eventually are unable or unwilling to do the things we once did well and with passion. Often though, circumstances beyond our control (and that’s almost all of them) create a situation where our role shifts. We go from being single to being married, then having children, then having grandchildren. We get promoted, laid off, transferred, or fired. We are diagnosed with cancer, become disabled, lose our sight or hearing. The list is endless.

When we find ourselves facing a new reality, the tendency is to resist. There is a time and place for resistance. We should resist evil. We should resist temptation. We should resist complacency. There is also a time and place for acceptance. We should accept when our role changes and find ways to fulfill that role with the same fervor we had prior to the change. 

Sometimes the first step is to know and acknowledge that change has occurred. I have three or four people in my life that I trust enough to ask them this: “When I am the guy driving 45 in the left lane and everyone is starting to pass me on the left, will you tell me to change lanes?” Self-awareness is helpful, but we often need other people to point out when a shift has happened.

The reason we resist when our role changes is relevance. We may mistakenly believe that our relevance is in what we do. Therefore, we believe that changing what we do changes our relevance. This is not true. Our relevance is related to the intentionality of what we do, not the thing itself. Unlike the circumstances that created the change, we can control the relevance we have by our own intentions. Another way to say it is that we cannot control what happens, but we can control how we respond. Ironically, resistance reduces our relevance where acceptance increases it.

Since communities and organizations are made up of people, these things apply to them too. Organizations with a culture that embraces change and limits resistance to new ideas and new opportunities will be more likely to remain relevant. That relevance can manifest in profitability, missional effectiveness, or a host of other metrics.

An organization with a culture that embraces change, resists what should be resisted, accepts what should be accepted, and values people wherever they are in their life cycle will be effective in the ways that organizations are often measured. More importantly, it will be successful in providing people with a community that supports their present relevance. That’s better than reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, and it is the Bison Way.