Can one plan in such times as these?

In general I believe that planning is essential.  The only real alternative to planning is not responsiveness and flexibility but chaos.  The people who plan are much better at improvising than the people who don’t.  But can one plan in such times as these?

Whatever kind of organisation we lead we face an unusually high degree of uncertainty right now.  No-one knows if the curve of the economic recovery will be fast and steep or slow and relatively flat.  There might be a second wave of coronavirus that is worse than the first or we might keep it under control and come up with a vaccine relatively quickly.  We might reach a new deal with the EU post-Brexit that minimises cost and disruption but the opposite seems as or more likely.  The vast majority of people and organisations face an uncertain economic future in which unnecessary spending is not at all attractive.  All this leaves confidence low. 

Many organisations are not yet able to operate in anything like the “normal” way and still have many working remotely, from home, in temporary arrangements.  It is not clear when it will be possible to return to “normality” or whether there will ever be such a return.  Do we really need the large, expensive offices we had become used to thinking essential?  Has the crisis demonstrated their dispensability?  I suspect the jury is out on this one for most as well.

Can we plan in an environment like this? 

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Learning the lessons – building on what matters

Everyday I read sentiments to the effect that the virus and the lockdown have changed us forever.  Life cannot and will not go back to how it used to be.  I beg to differ.  I think once this is over the most likely scenario is that all the old pressures will come crowding back in and everything will fairly quickly revert to how it was.  All that we are experiencing now will fade into a tantalising dream/nightmare.  If we want things to change we had better learn the lessons now and act to make sure we don’t forget them.

“Key worker”
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Christmas and the organisation

The Christmas story contains a challenging message for organisations and their leaders on fundamental issues like control, power, knowledge and status.

The gospels contain the familiar tale of how Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and, as foretold, subsequently becomes pregnant. She and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in order to comply with the conditions for the Emperor’s census. There is no room for them in the inn and so the baby (destined to be the king of kings) is born in a stable. Angels appear to the shepherds proclaiming peace and the shepherds visit the baby – followed a little later by an unknown number of sages from the east with gifts. Herod gets wind of a special royal birth and, fearing a rival, resolves to kill all the children under two in and around Bethlehem. But the parents are forewarned in a dream and flee to Egypt. Thus begins God’s programme to save the world.

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Thinking allowed: why coaching might help

Leaders face many pressures and demands. Having a coach can help you perform better and feel better.

Are you a manager or leader, perhaps a CEO? In my experience most people in leadership roles have their heads down doing most of the time. As a result other things get lost – such as where you’re going, for example. How many of the following statements apply to you?

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What’s in a word? Mission

Nearly every organisation has a “mission statement”, to the extent that the concept provokes some cynicism. This is usually, I assume, because, as with “values statements”, mission statements are the sort of thing one now has to have, irrespective of their truthfulness or utility or however banal the sentiment captured by them. Maybe mission statements are sometimes composed and adopted without much thought, care or commitment. The written results are sometimes unimpressive. But it does not alter one of the basics of organisational success – that it is essential to understand and adhere to a clear understanding of what the organisation exists for.

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Reflections on what makes a good strategy

Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash

I’m working with a couple of organisations at the moment on their strategy for the next five years in one case, and ten years in the other.  Perhaps you have been part of such processes.  I wonder what your reflection on them might be?  What do you feel you have learned about the ingredients that come together to make a good strategy?  My reflections focus on the need for a strategy to make a difference.  It might seem obvious that strategies should have impact but I see many that (at least appear) to be designed simply to fulfil a perceived need to have “a strategy”, or as an organisational tool with an essentially bureaucratic purpose – that is, to keep things under control and, maybe, make incremental improvements in an essentially unchanging operation.

As I think back over what is now twenty plus years of helping organisations manage their strategic development I can identify a few ingredients that seem to me crucial but which are sometimes neglected or not understood.  The first is that a strategy requires a destination.  In other words, a good strategy starts with a vision, by which I mean an understanding of the desired future of the organisation.  You need to know where you want to end up, and, unless that is somewhere different from where you are today, you will hardly need a strategy to achieve it.  A vision tells you where you want to go.  A strategy tells you how you plan to get there.  Perhaps this seems obvious, but I see quite a few strategy documents that merely make sense of what the organisation is already doing, usually by organising current or approved activities under convenient headings.  It can be useful to be able to identify your key activities (it can help you, for example, to stop doing things that do not fit into your scheme) but it does not really amount to a strategy as I understand the term.

The type of so-called strategy that merely lists and categorises the activities normally undertaken by the organisation is also far too broad and unfocused to be much use in guiding you towards a better future.  Another feature of the effective strategy is that it makes choices.  It decides to do one thing rather than another, or at least, to emphasise one thing over another.  The strategy that merely says we will do what we normally do, only under clearer headings, is unlikely to make much of a difference.  Good strategies say we will do this or that new thing, or perhaps, that we will do this existing thing substantially differently, or, at the very least, that, out of our list of activities, we will put effort into this rather than that thing.  And, of course, these choices will be based on a conviction that they will provide a focus which is likely to deliver a successful transition to the desired future state.

That takes me to my third observation, which is that strategies need to be built on good judgement and discernment about what the organisation needs to do in order to thrive in its world.  This is partly about understanding what is happening in that world and developing considered responses to both threats and opportunities (the well-known SWOT analysis may well be deployed here).  But the necessary corollary of this calculation is to inquire more deeply into the identity of the organisation (its values, its beliefs, its assets) so as to ensure that future action represents not just a response to external challenges but also to internal aspiration and potential.  In other words, a strategy needs to be built on a sense of what the organisation needs to or could become.

And, finally, a strategy is not much use unless it actually drives what happens in the organisation.  Quite often strategies mean something to the specialists who create them but are a mystery, a source of resentment or an irrelevance to everyone else.   Strategy needs buy-in. But how do you achieve it?  The only way is to involve as many people as possible in the development of strategy – not as a post-hoc gesture but in a spirit of genuine collaboration.  Strategies developed this way are not only better supported, they are usually just better. This is because they take seriously the idea that wisdom is spread around the organisation and that a conversation which engages properly with the range of insights and viewpoints available from a range of stakeholders is likely to be more well-directed and more complete.  By all means employ the services of people who are skilled in strategic thinking and planning, but it is not a job that can be simply handed off to “experts”.

I could, no doubt, come up with additional reflections, but I would prefer to hear what you have observed.  You may find that your own reflections add further points or lead you to take issue with mine.  Please do use the comments box below to add your thoughts.

21st century church: towards a manifesto

The church of the future: characterised by grace, humility and confidence?

It is often said that we are witnessing the end of Christendom; the end, that is, of the long period in which, in Britain and the west, the Christian church enjoyed a high degree of religious, social and political power and influence. For centuries Britain saw itself as a Christian country in which Christianity was the dominant intellectual and moral voice and there was wide participation in Christian rituals. The church, especially the Church of England, was at the heart of the social and political establishment in both law and in influence. The vestiges of this dispensation remain, as illustrated, for example, in the church’s continuing participation in the British legislature and the relationship between ecclesiastical and civil law. But the substance is going or gone: an inevitable consequence of a situation in which only about 6% of the population now regularly attend church (1).
It is not clear what has caused this change. (It is tempting to attribute the change to secularisation, but there is evidence that it is organised Christianity that has declined, not religious conviction as such.) But we can speculate about some of the factors that may be at work:

• Disillusionment with organised religion for its perceived hypocrisy and abuse of power
• A more general rejection of what is seen as the unaccountable and stifling power of institutions
• The widespread desire for freedom, especially over choices about belief and lifestyle
• The sexual revolution, especially the liberation of women and the recognition of gay relationships (The church has tended to resist this revolution and the associated desire for freedom in lifestyles. According to Callum Brown (2) the traditional conceptions of family life and the role of women were at the centre of the narrative that sustained the church through the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries – so it is not just that the church is out of step, seen as resisting the pursuit of freedom, but that a major plank in its platform has been removed.)

Now, so far, maybe, so unremarkable. I am assuming that most of this is not really news. It is more important and useful perhaps, to ask: “how should the church respond”? And yet, this is an almost impossible question to answer. The “paradigm shift” taking place (by this term, I refer to a major change in the basic assumptions and practices which shape society) is so profound that it is almost bound to require new models of doing and being church to produce an adequate response. By definition, i.e. because we cannot expect the future to be like the past and therefore have an inadequate frame of reference, we can hardly know what these are. We will have to discover them by thinking, praying and talking about them over time and by experiment. It is clear to me though, for both theological and organisational reasons, that this will need to involve a re-exploration of the church’s core identity (the way it understands, expresses and embodies gospel faith). It will require an exploration not only of the nature, outlook and needs of the society taking shape around us but a willingness to listen to what the world around us has to tell us about our faith and practice. In other words, it is not just a matter of making ourselves more “relevant” it is about hearing what God is saying to us through what is happening in the world around us and in the story of our “decline”. We need to engage in a dialogue between our tradition and the voices, needs and facts of the world in which we are set and see what emerges. We should do so confident that the decline of institutional Christianity as we know it is not the end of God and trust in the Spirit to lead us into what may well prove a more authentic expression of the Christian faith. It is worth considering that there is plenty about Christendom to regret as well as plenty to remember with gratitude (3).

What this will look like, as I say, I don’t know. The form and structures we know might change radically, or not. But I do expect the church of the future to have some of the following features if it is to meet the challenge of the times and rebuild trust with the wider community.

• A new emphasis on grace. The church will do things gratuitously, for no reason other than to demonstrate and witness to the love of God
• The church will talk more about the life and teaching of Jesus, especially the radical insights of the Sermon on the Mount
• The church will recover the sense of being a movement with a purpose in the world, rather than a club for the religious
• Participation in the church’s life will be unconditional, but people will be drawn into joining the movement and finding the God behind it: discipleship will be nurtured by the sacramental life of the church but orientated towards the world
• The movement will be based on the missio dei: we will be people of the Kingdom, looking for its realisation, looking outward, aiming to be God’s people in the world, with an interest in and concern for all that God has made
• The church will be at once an authentic sign of the Kingdom and a community with loose and porous boundaries in which all are welcome
• The church will emphasise public theology and an associated practice: that is, it will work with many partners of all faiths and none, for the good of human society and the care of creation, without needing to seek power or dominance in the relationship. But it will do so on the basis of a clear theological position and sense of discipleship and vocation
• The church will be humble: willing to learn, seeking to serve, repenting of the abuses of power sometimes characteristic of the past, aware of fallibility and sinfulness, happy to respect and live with pluralism as one voice among many
• The church will be confident: trusting in God, empowered by the Spirit, inspired by Christ, unapologetic about its faith, orthodox, but questioning in thought and practice
• The church will be contextual, finding ways of being and doing church that emerge from a constructive dialogue between the tradition and the place
• The church will no longer be seen as the domain of the sacred and the world of the secular, but both will be the place of God’s creative and redemptive activity with the church a sign of the essential unity of the world under God.

What I have described are the features of a strong and yet thoughtful faith that is both realistic about the world and affirming of its potential and its value to God; more capable of addressing the concerns and needs of 21st century people yet clear and distinctive in its Christian faith. What would you add, change or take away?

1. See Religion and Change in Modern Britain by Woodhead and Catto, 2012

2.Brown, C. (2001) The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization, 1800-2000. London, Routledge.

3. See Stuart Murray’s Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World, 2nd edition, 2018