How to avoid "institutional ADD"
New Year’s is a time for resolutions. But just like individuals, institutions must take steps all year round to achieve critical goals.
There’s plenty of advice circulating about making and keeping New Year’s resolutions. For all the ink that gets spilled telling us how to lose weight, stop smoking and escape the clutches of debt, you would think Americans would find it easy to live into better physical and fiscal health in the new year.
Reality is quite different, of course, and even the most well-intentioned person can find it difficult to keep such resolutions. Whatever the depth of desire, old patterns of behavior return, proving that it is easier to dream about a different way of being in the world than it is to live into it.
Our individual experience with resolutions has an analogy at the institutional level. Consider how organizations are perennially engaged in strategic planning, or how, with the publication of “Good to Great,” you couldn’t attend a board meeting for a time without someone asking about the “Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).” This is all good, but too often the strategic plan or BHAG is like a New Year’s resolution -- today’s good goal that lacks staying power.
There are two primary ways these goals can fail. First, as in our personal lives, so too in our institutions the mundane can defeat the audacious. Walker Percy’s great phrase comes to mind: it’s the “everydayness of life” that kills us. For institutions, it’s the everydayness of institutional living that can kill a great goal or dream. To avoid this, leaders need to help people understand the strategic goal, incorporating the day-to-day but rising above it, too.
Pastoral leaders, for example, can dedicate a Sunday in the church year and preach about the mission of the church generally and their congregation specifically, and how that mission is already being lived by the people in the pews. Pastors can create congregational small groups to talk about the vision and invite members to think about how God is calling them to participate more fully in it.
Institutional leaders can remind staff members of the mission at every meeting and ask them to make their presentations in light of the mission, which will serve to reinforce it. In these ways, the day-to-day of a church or organization can be re-imagined, not as a distraction to the vision, but as the very way that the vision is being achieved. (Asking persons to talk about their work -- whether volunteer or paid -- in light of the mission also helps leaders identify those who do not understand what the organization is striving toward.)
A second way our institutional goals can fail is through the cynicism created when leaders so anxiously cast about in search of the next vision that they never invest fully in the present one. My first experience of this came more than 20 years ago when my denomination adopted a plan that was meant to carry it into the new millennium. It was called “Vision2000,” and it challenged the church to focus on faith formation, evangelism and church revitalization. These were important and inspiring goals, but the plan itself did not live to see the year 2000. It ended before the start of the new millennium in favor of the next big vision and goal.
I grew up in a congregation that had taken Vision2000 seriously, and I watched as the same church leaders who had dedicated much time and energy to it responded suspiciously to the next large-scale vision. Many of them refused to contribute toward the accomplishment of that goal, certain that another would be following quickly behind. Sadly, they have been proved correct.
A friend of mine refers to this phenomenon as “institutional ADD.” That feels like an appropriate diagnosis. Ironically, some of the most “ADD”-afflicted institutions are blessed with some of the most talented, imaginative and creative leaders, but as Gregory the Great noted centuries ago, our greatest blessings can become our greatest bedevilments.
Creative leaders (and creative institutions with them) tend to thrive on idea generation, not idea implementation. Without persons in place who can maintain focus on execution, today’s goal gets set aside, and before long, people will opt out of vision setting and goal setting altogether because they don’t believe they will produce lasting results.
Institutional resolutions are fraught with the same dynamics as personal ones. Whether or not you make resolutions on the first of the year or engage in planning in other ways, paying attention to the dynamics might help your institution achieve its goals -- even if you don’t lose five pounds, quit smoking or pay every bill on time.