Article Published: Beginning at the End

Imagine this scenario. A revered CEO stands up in front of his eleven Vice Presidents and gives a riveting speech to them. He speaks articulately and succinctly while capturing every tidbit of their imaginations. He speaks with passion and gives them a mission to carry out in the future. Every word echoes around the room and reverberates in the heads of those listening. They take notes and compare their notes to make sure they scribed every word perfectly. He then walks out the door, leaves the building and is tragically killed while driving to a lunch meeting. His followers’ last memory of him is this riveting speech, and the eleven men in the room leave that day to devote the rest of their lives to living and carrying out the words that leader spoke. They promote their mission everywhere they go and expand their organization to become the longest lasting, fastest expanding, most controversial, most life changing organization in human history, complete with the most patriotic and dedicated employees the world has ever seen. They literally infiltrate every aspect of every segment of every world culture. And it starts with one, 61-word speech.
It seems like a far-fetched scenario in today’s world. We are so oversaturated with communication, preaching and advertisements, that the spoken word’s power is diluted. We like to analyze the phonetics of speech, without taking to heart the long-lasting meaning of words. Mission statements are bantered about, posted on beautiful and colorful plaques, and hidden away on the wall of the organization’s waiting room. Do they actually get taken to heart? How many people can quote their organization’s mission, let alone live it out? We know the power of words, but we rarely live out the power of those words.
The farewell discourse of Matthew 28 describes nearly this exact scenario. After Jesus is resurrected, He returned to His disciples for a few moments, talked to them, and then left shortly after. He summed up His entire ministry in a few actions and words and started the greatest and longest lasting revolution in human history. These 61 words form the mission statement of the early church:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-19, NRSV).

If you want to read more, check out my article that was recently published in the American Journal of Biblical Theology. Article can be downloaded by clicking here.

Strategic Planning Alternatives: Mission Discernment

I recently wrote two posts criticizing strategic planning. It’s always easy to deconstruct the status quo; it’s tough to reconstruct a viable alternative. I’ll propose some alternatives in my next few posts and I am very interested to hear your thoughts on them.

Consider this quote:
“Executive summaries of requests for decisions are useful tools to consolidate our thinking, but they are not an end in themselves, intended to replace the substantive analysis that normally accompanies such high level summaries. If we begin framing all our thinking and communication in briefing note formats and bullet point analyses, there will inevitably be a tragic erosion of deep engagement with the issues” (Self, 2010a, p.18).

While Self wasn’t directly critiquing strategic planning (SP), that “tragic erosion of deep engagement” is an articulate description of many strategy plans as well.

John Bell wrote a great post called “Why Mission Statements Suck”. I agree, but only because most organizations write the mission statement, post it on their boardroom wall and then forget about it (until the next SP retreat of course). Mission is usually figurative, not integrative. The fault is not in the mission statement itself, but in the discernment of the mission and utilization of the mission in decision-making. But how exactly does one ‘discern’ the mission?

My colleague Dr. Gordon Self has developed a Mission Discernment Tool for use within Covenant Health (Disclaimer: I also work for Covenant Health). In a nutshell, the tool allows leaders to ‘discern’ which path to take as they inevitably face crossroads of decisions, using their mission as the guide.

SP assumes we know all the paths ahead, and that if we try hard enough, we can map our organization’s linear path through the future. But it becomes useless when those paths inevitably change or end up as deadends or cliffs. Mission Discernment assumes the future is blurry and somewhat unpredictable. It assumes leaders will face really tough decisions that can’t be predicted in detail. It is not for petty decisions like what colour of pencils you should buy. Rather, it is for organization-altering decisions such as: Do we expand into this market? Do we lay-off part of our workforce? Do we bribe our way into this country or not? Do we outsource part of our organization? Do we invest in this new service/product? These are tough decisions that make or break leaders and organizations. The Mission Discernment tool gives a framework to wrestle with them.

Mission Discernment also gives us a framework to wrestle with moral decisions our organizations inevitably face. I wonder if Niko Resources would be paying a $9.5Million bribery fine if they had discerned their decisions before bribing foreign officials?

The tool was developed for a Catholic healthcare organization, but I foresee it being adapted to any organization that has a strong, thoughtful and unique mission, and wants to thrive in the future through that mission. It won’t replace strategic planning, but can definitely be a great resource for any leader facing a formidable labyrinth of decisions ahead of him/her.

The Mission Discernment Tool can be viewed here.

Self, G. (2010a). Mission Discernment: A preventative ethics strategy for leaders in Catholic health care organizations. Doctoral Dissertation at St. Stephen’s College.

Self, G. (2010, Nov-Dec). Put values Up front: New discernment tool makes sure values aren’t left to chance. Health Progress. Download article here.