Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An organizational culture view on strategic planning

in Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
I used to work in places like this; Photo by st3ve (CC lic.)
Strategic planning has been on my mind a lot recently. It all started a few months ago when my friend, Josh Brockway, blogged about the church needing to be less strategic and more tactical. Yet he works for a denominational board that just underwent an extensive strategic planning process, producing the Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board Strategic Plan 2011-'19 (PDF). The implementation of this plan will purportedly guide that board and its work for the next eight years of its organizational existence.

Then my organizational studies professor at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, David Brubaker - from whom I've taken an organizational leadership course and will take a congregational conflict course this fall - sent me the following article/blog post from Nilofer Merchant at the Harvard Business ReviewCulture Trumps Strategy, Every Time

In the post, she makes a number of assertions about the nature of organizational culture:
  • Culture's all that invisible stuff that glues organizations together
  • Culture is the set of habits that allows a group of people to cooperate by assumption rather than by negotiation
  • Culture is the domain that enables or obstructs a velocity of function (how quickly things get done)
Culture is a perennial interest of mine, and I spent a decent amount of time writing about it last semester. So after reading Merchant's list, I immediately went to the list James Davison Hunter culled together in To Change the World for what constitutes culture:
  • Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations
  • Culture is a product of history
  • Culture is intrinsically dialectical
  • Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power
  • Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of "center" and "periphery"
  • Culture is generated within networks
  • Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent
On the surface, Merchant's list seems to be more active in a sense than Hunter's, which might be a by-product of her orientation toward business, which tends to want to produce things. Indeed, the tone of her post is very results-/production-oriented. But what got me thinking by comparing these two list goes back to the denominational board's strategic plan mentioned above.

If Merchant is right when she says that "culture will trump strategy, every time" and that if "the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave or make decisions (that strategy) will fail," then I hope my fellow Brethren in the Mission and Ministry Board take this seriously as they go about implementing the strategies which they've articulated. (By the way, from what I've read so far, I'm very impressed with the strategic plan, so I'm not posting this to poo-poo their fine work.)

It's also important to realize the discrepancies in organizational cultures within church denominations. Denominations aren't quite as self-enclosed as businesses, as they traverse many socioeconomic and geographic boundaries, to name just a few. The professional culture of a denominational board will be vastly different than the local culture of a given congregation. Brethren sociologist, Carl Bowman, has shown the denominational boards and agencies in the Church of the Brethren already have a credibility problem with many local congregations, so I worry about that disconnect and how it may impede the board moving forward effectively with its strategy. If Hunter is right in that culture is generated within networks and I'm right that cultural discrepancies exists across the denomination, the Mission and Ministry board would do well to attend these gaps and work to build a stronger denominational culture through its networks.

As to the "strategy vs. tactics" discussion, I think this is an unhelpful dichotomy. To my mind, these words are descriptors for 1) scope of time, coupled with 2) complexity of work. The higher up the scale you work in these dimensions, the more you move from tactics to strategy. (Here I'm freestyling off my informal research of the requisite organization theory from organizational theorist, Elliot Jaques). If you're a big-picture thinker, you're already thinking strategically or working to do it better. This work is hard to do and not many people can do it well. This is not an elitist doctrine, if you're wondering. Big-picture people are often horrible at conducting the very important business of day-to-day tasks. In other words: We all need each other. I think it's true that at the local level, congregations will be more focused on being tactical than strategic, but the denominational teams will be more strategic...but hopefully oriented toward serving those at the local level.

So I hope my sisters and brothers in Christ at the denominational offices for the Church of the Brethren are sensitive to these things as they conduct their important work for our little church tradition. I love that the plan starts with a prayer and the first strategic item involves getting people to read the Bible more. Hallelujah, and amen!! That shows me that the powerful results-oriented culture of capitalist enterprises - which helped bring such things as strategic plans into existence - hasn't completely overwhelmed the Christians working in those capacities. It's a good sign to me that they're moving toward being faithful stewards and servant leaders in the way of Jesus. May their work be Spirit-led and move toward deeper witness and harmony in the body of Christ.

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