Strategic choices begin with answers to questions of why, where, who and how and culminate in selecting the capacities and management systems to develop and strengthen. It seems obvious that good strategy depends on specific talent in the ministry and a practical way of organizing, but somehow we often spend too much or too little time on these later strategic choices.
I have argued before that the key to doing new or better work is not to reorganize because beginning a strategy with choices about organizational charts and budget systems is deadly for the morale of employees and constituents alike. However, once the mission, territory, people and work are defined, it is critical to organize the work.
Our team at Leadership Education recently launched a major new project. In our first meeting, we talked about why the project was critical and started describing the work. Within two weeks, one of the project leaders started asking about who was working on the project, how much time they could devote to the web launch and what they would no longer do in order to free up time for the new work. She knew that unless those choices were made, no one would have time to respond to her and the project would never get off the ground.
Organizing a new project is tricky. No one is exactly sure what will be needed. Everyone is pretty sure it will take more time and energy than expected. Over-organizing consumes so much energy that nothing is left for the project itself. Under-organizing means that once the project is launched everyone is so weary that they cannot keep up the work.
In business literature and popular opinion, organizing is a function of management -- about getting things done and having clear roles, responsibility and accountability. Those are, of course, important. But in congregations and Christian institutions, the best indicator of the proper amount of organization is not clarity but morale of the group. When we tend to the heart of the people in our organizing, the productivity will follow.
Such tending requires:
- Structuring the work to be small enough to do and big enough to matter so employees and volunteers can gain a sense of agency about the work and be confident in how each person contributes to the mission.
- Organizing the tasks so that participants build select skills and gain expertise by regularly repeating the tasks. As skills are mastered, they become second nature and can be deployed in multiple experiments. Repeating tasks is another key to developing a sense of agency that is critical to employees and volunteers flourishing.
- Regularly evaluating the work and making adjustments. Project leaders must ask straightforward questions that invite a review of both the content and process of major activities. Organizing such a review should be seen as critical to the process of design and delivery.
Thirty years ago, Harvard’s John Kotter wrote about the distinction between leadership and management and argued that American corporations are often under-led and over-managed. Christian institutions that flourished in the 1950s often replicated the bureaucratic structures of companies in that era and now resemble Kotter’s diagnosis.
The antidote is to focus on the why, where, who and how of strategy. With clear choices in mind, determine the organization. Ministries born more recently often have plenty of vision, but their leaders lose energy and interest before making choices about organization and process. Leaders in these organizations must develop the discipline required to engage questions of organizing for the long term. Being organized is not flashy, but is critical to longer term sustainability of the work, the employees and the volunteers.