Planned spontaneity

Cultivating opportunities for spontaneity at the institutional level begins with our own openness to being disrupted and our own imagination for the unexpected.

I love making plans. At any given time, I am probably planning a small dinner party, a going-away party, a “yay, you got an interview!” happy hour, a “let me watch your baby while you have a date with your spouse” Saturday afternoon, a trip to visit a friend, and a list of three friends who I want to meet for a coffee/walk/meal sometime in the next few weeks. That doesn’t even touch the planning I do for work.

I love making plans.

I love planning events so much that a friend once declared that I was a “plan addict.” I like making plans as much or maybe even more than I like going to the events that I plan. I like making lists more than I like doing the things on the list. In fact, sometimes I just complete things on the list so that I can make a new, fresh list. I love the anticipation and the hopefulness of planning. It’s a neurotic sort of hopefulness, but it’s mine and I like it.

This kind of addiction to planning can be equal parts helpful and dangerous. On one hand, carefully planned events and meetings often run smoothly and with ease. They can communicate care and concern to the guests and participants. On the other hand, holding to plans too tightly can cripple one’s ability to roll with life’s surprises. Rigid planning can prevent us from experiencing the event or the moment to the fullest. It can blind us to the spontaneous and creative possibilities that could never be anticipated.

At an institutional level, rigid planning can overlook unexpected economic, environmental and social changes present in the communities we serve. This sort of institutional rigidity often leads to stagnation and death.

People who prefer spontaneity scoff at the expression “planned spontaneity,” but I am a firm believer that good leaders know how to cultivate opportunities for disruption. In the church, we sometimes call this being led by the Spirit. In Scripture, the Spirit of God shows up in all kinds of unexpected places and does unexpected things. Creation, the Incarnation, the instantiation of the church at Pentecost – they all come about by this disruptive presence of the Spirit. This same disruptive activity of the Spirit is at work in our church and institutions today.

Cultivating disruptive innovation at an institutional level begins with our own openness to being disrupted, our own cultivation of a space for spontaneity and our own imagination for the unexpected. If we hope to lead innovative change in our institutions and churches, we ourselves need to practice discerning when to attend to moments of disruption and spontaneity in our mundane interactions with colleagues, friends, and parishioners.

For a recent professional meeting, I laid out a careful agenda. I prepared talking points and conversation questions. I spoke with the meeting participants and prepared them for the ways that I hoped they would contribute. I also portioned out generous amounts of time for each agenda item, and I was careful not to overbook the schedule.

Mid-meeting it became clear that we needed to have a conversation about our vision for the program we lead. We paused our logistical conversation and took a time of silence to write down our individual hopes for the program. Then we spent 30 minutes sharing and aligning our hopes to each other’s. We had time because our meeting agenda was designed for the possibility of spontaneous disruption that I couldn’t anticipate.

It was the best thing we did all day. We saw each other’s hopes how profoundly unified we were as a team. By attending to the spontaneous need for clarity in our vision, we were inspired, energized and motivated anew for the ministry we had to do.