‘Big Feelings’ Overcoming a Standstill at Aletheia

The hard work of Aletheia's boots on the ground to understand stakeholders and break through an impasse.
Case study for business consulting work involving strategy, design thinking, negotiation, and innovation.
  • Case Study

“We’ve never felt like we solved it. So we wound up back in the same spot, brainstorming.”

Going back to the drawing board…again. This is where The Human Factor found our recent client, Aletheia Church. 

Aletheia is a many-thousands-person church in Cambridge, MA. Their Sunday services—with thoughtful sermons and deep community roots—have attracted so many congregants that space is now a challenge. “There was nowhere to sit,” says Sarah McCarthy, Aletheia’s Director of Discipleship & Social Responsibility. “We needed another service time.”

The church’s growth is incredible, and also presented an incredible challenge. Saving seats to receive and serve visiting guests from the community is critical and those visitors almost exclusively attend the 11 AM Sunday service—which means stalwart 11-AMers are left standing. Every Sunday, Aletheia’s management sees the overflow and confronts the question: how can we draw members to a different service time, both to open up seats in the ever-popular Sunday morning slot and protect the quality of worship for all congregants?

Aletheia has tried new service time strategies before. Once, they opened a new afternoon time slot, but that didn’t pull enough people. When they pivoted and launched multiple, shorter Sunday morning services, the staff was crunched and congregants felt rushed, like they were being shooed out of worship.

We’ve never felt like we solved it. So we wound up back in the same spot, brainstorming.

Aletheia Leader

So, once again, a weary Aletheia leadership team dragged themselves back to the drawing board.

The Big Feelings involved in taking a new approach to a familiar problem

‘Back to the drawing board’ is the often moment The Human Factor is introduced to a client.

For clients like Aletheia, who have tried to solve a particular challenge in the past, our initial conversations present an interesting emotional tension. On one hand, teams feel they know so much about the problem and the people involved. We know our people. Simultaneously, teams feel disempowerment creeping in – they’re out of new ideas, out of energy, not sure how to proceed. They may have even begun to quietly avoid the topic altogether, because—frankly—they’re still unsure why their first ideas didn’t work. 

We’ve heard it characterized as: I should be able to see what’s next, but all I can see is what I’ve done before. In this state, teams feel bad asking for more resources, and asking more of their people. This was particularly true for Aletheia leaders. Said one, “We were all sort of dreading the conversation around adding another service because we knew we needed to, but we were thinking, this has never gone great in the past.

The relief in the reframe

The Human Factor typically jumps in here with a reframe: rather than focusing on finding the solution, let’s think about this challenge within a system of people. Who are the important stakeholders at play? What are their needs, motivations, and relationships to each other?

Stepping away from ‘problem solving’ to considering a system of stakeholders usually brings relief right away. We redirect teams’ existing knowledge and experience towards a new purpose: defining their stakeholder system. Then, The Human Factor guides the team to use this system to redefine the challenge and find opportunities. Suddenly, a blurry problem is injected with new life when put in the context of its system.   

For Aletheia, the process “definitely helped to slow us down and to identify our actual goals like how will we know if something won? Then, to really think intentionally about who’s in our church, who are those groups of people, and what are their needs?” 

In this case, the reframing methods immediately revealed a new opportunity. “We were kicking around all the same ideas and Rachel’s plug to us was—rather than try to push people to a third service time that’s less ideal for them—why don’t we try to design something that will pull people towards it?”

Importantly for team morale, the shift in approach is not only effective, but also energizing. “It was clear that the diverging work feels really good for this team — it’s energizing to define the system, because it feels like there’s a much lower risk of getting it wrong. For a team that has experienced a lot of pressure to ‘get it right’,  this part of the work is actually fun,” said Rachel.

New data brings up Big Feelings

However after this initial energy spike, the work continues and feelings start to creep in — “Big Feelings” as an Aletheia leader named them. This emotional experience, so normal it’s been recognized in formal research, happens when ‘what we know’ is challenged with new data. The Dunning-Kruger effect shows the interaction between confidence and wisdom: basically, how confident are we feeling about what we know, and how does that change as we learn more? 

Projects can begin at “Know-Nothing” or (leaning into our value of candor here) atop “Mt. Stupid.” Our initial reframing work is critical, but it doesn’t bring a deeper understanding of the problem on its own. As we dig deeper and the team realizes how much they don’t know, the relief and enthusiasm of shifting to a stakeholder-system approach morphs into doubt and discomfort. Big Feelings arrive on that downhill tumble towards the Valley of Despair. 

The reality is breaking through a standstill is not a comfortable experience. In fact, we expect an intense Big Feelings curve with any innovation strategy project. 

In these moments, folks feel uncomfortable with the process’s ambiguity and advocate a return to the old approach. How will we ever get from this huge system view to a concrete decision? At Aletheia, “When we had to actually put proposals together and converge on a couple of possible outcomes to test, people had a really hard time converging back and started to spin off in different directions.” Teams start to worry that the work is focused on the wrong questions – why are we asking about the people and the system?   

Prioritizing potential solutions to test starts to feel like life-or-death and team members feel defensive or reluctant to down-select. They worry, where do my ideas and insight fit into this ambiguous process? “When the process felt like it was converging on a solution [some on the team thought], ‘Well wait, I don’t like that solution. What about this idea from before?’”

Being a leader in this moment is equally challenging; from every side, they’re fielding questions for taking this new approach. Rattled, they question themselves. How am I supposed to lead when I can’t see where this is going to land?

The good news is Big Feelings don’t indicate the process isn’t working; in fact, we expect them. In the words of an Aletheia leader, “It felt initially like something was wrong with us, that the Big Feelings are happening. When [we realized] oh no, this is almost a feature of the process… That was the thing that helped me the most.” 

Focused, human-centered research swings teams to an upward slope 

Using the team’s work in stakeholder system definition, The Human Factor then conducts rapid, human-centered research that brings in fresh information. This new data serves multiple purposes on our innovation teams. 

First, the data is imperative because it cuts through the noise. “[At Aletheia, the data] helped converge us on this is what reality is as opposed to all of the brainstorming and the maybe this would work, maybe that would work.” Data functions as the ‘fair standard’ we see in negotiation literature—it’s a clear, fair mechanism for prioritization that’s not based on individuals’ opinions, which reduces tension among team members. For example, Aletheia had debated introducing other, longer worship times as an incentive to draw people away from Sunday’s 11 AM service. However, the data quickly served its purpose as a fair standard and revealed, “this group of people is actually not super compelled by longer worship times. [Aletheia’s leadership had] gone back and forth on that forever. Now we can just say that’s not the answer. It really helped us eliminate some ideas we had been kicking around and elevate other ones.” 

Plus, data re-energizes the team. “When Rachel came in and started putting data up on the screen, everyone was super engaged, really wanting to know what did people say? Who did you talk to? What was that like?….Hearing quotes from [our stakeholders] was really compelling. I think it re-energized us all to think, ‘Okay, we can do this! We can create something that would appeal to this group of people!’ It helped bring us out of the clouds and back into action mode.”

Act, they did. Talks were no longer “X and Y person sat in a room and came up with a dreamy idea”, but rather “we have data to back up that this is the thing to help us be successful.” Idea fixation broke, and momentum was unlocked in its place. 

The team rolled out a new strategy. A few weeks later, standing in the 11 AM Sunday service, an Aletheia leader reflected, “Y’all did an amazing job…It has never felt better. We did it as a team. And,” pointing to the open seats, “it worked.”

What else helps with Big Feelings?

Normalize the experience 

At the end of the day, Big Feelings signal investment. They mean the team cares about the outcome – because of their passion for the project and care for the people involved. Acknowledging what we don’t know and letting research drive decisions is always going to stir up Big Feelings – let’s normalize it. 

Check in with the team

Big Feelings can be a shared experience that brings a team together. Check in and name the courage it takes to engage in a new, ambiguous process. These small acts will build psychological safety.

Introduce structure when the team is feeling the weight of ambiguity 

The right methods to break down the process into bite-sized steps, and an expert to turn to when things get shaky, helps leaders remain sturdy. “It really helped me when I realized [The Human Factor] was not surprised by the Big Feelings,” says the Aletheia leader. “When they communicated, this is totally normal. we are not freaked out by this, I thought, Okay, then I don’t have to be freaked out by it. It’s gonna be okay.”

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