Friday, November 12, 2004

More Reflections on 'Good to Great'

The elected leaders of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Church, and I will meet tomorrow for a day-long strategic planning retreat. In preparation for that, among other things, I've been reading Jim Collins' fantastic book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't. It had been highly recommended by several speakers at a recent gathering of professional and volunteer leaders of the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Midwest region.

The book had been setting on my shelf for some months. I dug in. Early on, Collins asserts that his findings have relevance not just to commercial corporations, but to other organizations and to individuals. I agree completely.

Some of the principles Collins identifies are as old as the Bible itself. This evening, I sent the Church Council my summaries and thoughts on chapters 4 and 5. Below, I've copied some of what I wrote:

Chapter 4 is titled "Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)." Collins asserts that of course, leaders must have and express confidence in the ultimate success of the aims of their organizations, but they must also be absolutely honest about the obstacles and difficulties. At the chapter's outset, he quotes Winston Churcill: "There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away."

"The good-to-great companies," Collins asserts, "displayed two distinctive forms of disciplined thought. The that they infused the entire process with brutal facts...The that they developed a simple, yet deeply insightful, frame of reference for all decisions." (pp.69-70)

Unlike so many organizations and leaders these days, the good-to-great companies of Collins' research didn't begin with a grand vision. Instead, he says, they "continually refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality." (p.71)

This means, of course, that organizations need to be places in which the truth is told and heard. Collins enumerates the climate of such an organization. He says that it boils down to four basic practices: (1) Leading with questions, not answers; (2) Engaging in dialogue and debate, not coercion; (3) Conducting autopsies,
without blame; (4) Building "red flag" mechanisms by which problems are identified. On this latter point, Collins shared a startling finding: His good-to-great companies did not have access to better information than their competitors. The difference was in how they faced those facts and dealt with them.

The most stunning section of the whole book comes in this chapter. In it, Collins introduces what he calls, "The Stockdale Pardox." For Christians, this concept will be very familar.

Admiral John Stockdale was the highest ranking POW imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam during the war there. He was held for eight years and tortured more than twenty times. After reading about Stockdale's heroic resistance to his captors, Collins met the man.

Collins asked Stockdale how he and other American POWs survived the experience. "I never lost faith in the end of the story," he said. Stockdale simply knew that they could make it and urged his fellow POWs to believe it. He even told Collins: "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade." (p.85)

After receiving that astounding insight, Collins asked who
didn't survive? Stockdale's surprising response: The optimists. These were the people who were part of the "fake it till you make it crowd," who would try to delude themselves and others to ignore the facts and simply because of a (probably internally-manufactured) feeling, named a date definite when they would be out. But when those deadlines passed, discouragement would overtake them, leaving them vulnerable.

Believe in the ultimate successful outcome of your efforts AND

Be absolutely realistic about the difficulties in your path.

Jesus said something similar to His followers: "In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world." (John 16:33) It isn't always easy to follow Jesus. The difficulty of it can cause us to chastise ourselves for continuing to follow Christ and seeking to do His will when it would be easier to live for ourselves alone. As we follow Him, others may deride us or think us naive. But we know that Jesus Christ has overcome the world in order to let us live with God forever and to liberate us to become our best selves!

We need to apply these sensibilities to our mission as a church. We need to face the harsh realities, prayerfully develop strategies to deal with them. But we must never be bowed by them. We belong to the risen Jesus. We belong to a God Who has brought Friendship further than any so-called expert ever thought possible!

Chapter 5 of Collins' book talks about "the Hedgehog Concept," based on an essay by Isaiah Berlin in which he contrasts the styles of the fox and the hedgehog. Hedgehogs aren't flashy or wily like foxes (read: leaders with charisma). (By the way, one essayist recently compared John Kerry to the fox and George Bush to the hedgehog. Kerry knows about many things, but is perceived as not having a central core of convictions. Bush is perceived as knowing very little--perhaps deliberately so, but having a small set of core convictions.)

Through steady work, evaluation, brutal honesty, and belief that success can be found, hedgehog leaders and companies uncover that one thing or one set of things that their organization can be great at doing. They're like the church I told you about in my last email: They find one thing at which they excel and do it to the max!

For corporations in Collins' study, they came to know their peculiar Hedgehog Concept when they answered three questions:

  • What are you passionate about doing?
  • What can you be best in the world at doing?
  • What drives your economic engine?

It's at the intersection of these three answers that, Collins says, companies find their Hedgehog Concept.

I would suggest that a modification of these three questions might be used for our congregation:

  • What are we passionate about doing?
  • What do we have the potential for doing very well?
  • What ministries/community engagement really floats our current memberships' boats?

Entailed in this process is learning what to say, "No" to. There are a whole lot of good things our congregation could do. But what is the one thing that should be our hallmark? What are the three or four goals we should embrace in the coming year?

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