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

Top down or bottom up change – a false dichotomy

I recently helped organise a conference about “transformational change”.  The discussion ranged widely but two questions that came up have stayed with me. The first concerns the degree to which change can be “managed” and the second, whether change should be managed “top down” or “bottom up”.  I’d like to reflect a little on those questions, starting with the second.

The view that change should be managed bottom up rather than top down is popular at the moment and seemed to be favoured in remarks made at the conference. People are suspicious of top down approaches.  They seem, perhaps, old-fashioned, hierarchical, patronising.  Bottom up approaches seem more democratic, more egalitarian, more respectful of the knowledge of the people who “do the work”.  They may also be held to be more effective because change that people choose is more likely to “stick” than change that has been imposed.

I’m not so sure.  I think we are dealing with a false dichotomy here.  I think we have no choice, in fact, but to embrace elements of both top down and bottom up approaches if we want to see significant, lasting and appropriate change. Continue reading

Organisational and personal success: it’s not a sprint but a marathon

It’s a truism that the goals most worth achieving involve an effort more akin to a marathon than a sprint.  I work with several relatively long-lived organisations – one of them, a religious order providing residential care for the elderly, in five regions of the world, is over 150 years’ old.  There are very few businesses that have proved so enduring.  What do you need to do to be in it for the long haul?

I cannot claim to have run a full marathon, but I did complete a half marathon in Bath in 2013.  I’m still quite surprised at myself.  Before 2011 I’d never run more than a mile at a go and that was when I was at school (40 plus years’ ago!).  How on earth did I do it?  Looking back, here are some lessons I learned, all of which, on reflection, resonate with what I have experienced with the Sisters. Continue reading

Addressing resistance to change

I recently circulated John Beckford’s blog  challenging some of the ways in which organisations delay or avoid necessary changes.  I got positive feedback from several people but also this comment: “I think much more management consultancy needs to attend to delivery and some of the deeper resistances that lie within any one of us. The how-to seems critical”.  As I said to my correspondent at the time, that gives me a clear steer on the subject for my next blog.  Here is a link to John’s blog – I see my response to my reader’s comments very much as a companion piece: https://intelligentorganisation.com/uncategorised/toddler-steps-change-management/

So, for this blog we will assume that the organisational leadership has recognised the need to make a significant change but feels concern about the extent to which such a project will be supported or meet resistance from individuals and groups in the organisation, including, perhaps, those in leadership at the next level down in the hierarchy.  How should those leading change proceed? Continue reading

The power of identity

The question of identity lies at the heart of recent political convulsions.  It is a critical and often misunderstood or neglected factor in the success and health of societies and organisations and it is vital that it is respected, nurtured and given appropriate expression.

The last few months has seen us all surprised (Shocked? Flabbergasted? Appalled?) by the results of the two big polls, on either side of the Atlantic. The British people voted for Brexit and the American people for Donald Trump.  In both cases the result defied most expectations and overturned conventional thinking – such as that which holds that there are some things a candidate cannot say or do and still be a credible challenger for public office.

I consider these to be deeply worrying events demonstrating neither sense nor reason.  But that is not what this blog is about. Here I want to talk about what I think is an important part of the picture and suggest some applications of what emerges for organisations. Continue reading

Tradition and Change

Models of organisation 4

Many years ago I had a Sunday out with friends.  It was hot, sunny, idyllic.  We wandered as the mood took us.  In the Oxfordshire country we came upon a medieval church in the centre of a village.  We went to evensong.  We may even have sung ‘The day thou gavest Lord is ended’.  We went to the village pub afterwards.  We felt not only uplifted spiritually but immersed in an almost mystic vision of England.  I loved it and I still do.  It is rather wonderful that it can still feel like this, and there is something in it that is important to hold on to.  But there is also a nostalgia for a world that is disappearing fast.

It is a truism that people tend not to welcome change and that is as true of our corporate selves as of our personal lives.  Over time organisations develop processes and habits that seem to work and which become part of the organisation’s sense of itself.  These are not readily questioned or given up.  If the organisation becomes less successful people in it may even start to believe that its declining fortunes are a failure not of the organisation but of those who are no longer supporting it. They have ceased to ‘get it’.  The answer is to work harder, to ‘keep calm and carry on’ or to develop a new marketing strategy.  These responses don’t usually work.  If it is suggested that the customer may have a point and that more radical change is required, the organisation will often defend the way it does things as a matter of principle. Continue reading