109. The Chairperson’s Ability/Responsibility to Discern and Avoid “Bad Strategy.”

In a recent article published in McKinsey Quarterly (June 2011) Richard Rumelt argues that “bad strategy abounds” in the corporate world. I would suspect that the same can be said about the world of non-profits and particularly about local churches. Church leadership is often long on passion and generalities, but short on clear, consistently applied strategy. The result is that many congregations have good statements of mission, vision and values, but their ability to bring these dreams into reality is frustrated by “bad strategy.” According to Rumelt good strategy “honestly acknowledges the challenges we face and provides an approach to overcoming them.”

“Bad strategy” occurs when leaders fail to define the challenge and therefore cannot “assess the quality of the strategy.” A second classic feature of bad strategy is “mistaking goals for strategy.” And third, bad strategy thrives when we embrace “fuzzy strategic objectives.” A long “to do” list is not a strategy. And finally Rumelt states that “a final hallmark of…bad strategy is superficial abstraction–a flurry of fluff–designed to mask the absence of thought.”

Rumelt also offers some analysis as to why bad strategy seems to be abound. A key issue here is the “inability to choose” from among many different goals the two or three key things that will advance the mission. Sometimes as well leaders borrow a template from someone else and try to apply it, but do so mistakenly.

This leads Rumelt to discern the essence of “good strategy.” The basic structure of a good strategy must include “a diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge;” “a guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to…overcome the obstacles;” and “coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.” He concludes by stating that “the core of the strategist’s work is always the same: discover the crucial factors in a situation and design a way to coordinate and focus actions to deal with them.”

Chairpersons in church boards are always dealing with issues of ministry strategy. Board agendas frequently have items such as “new ministry program proposal” or “review of annual ministry plan” or “discussion about enabling congregational growth.” When a chair knows such items are on the board’s agenda usually there is some angst as to just what is expected and whether the board has the capacity and understanding to make the right decision. For example, without a “good strategy” how will the board know whether a new ministry program proposal will be “strategic” to advancing the mission? Or, when the board seeks to discern how to stimulate congregational growth, is the board really willing to ask the hard questions and operate with a commitment to honesty, or is there a culture of denial as to the real causes for the lack of growth and thus a failure of will to address them?

Consider this scenario. A church board adopts as part of the congregational vision a goal to make 100 new disciples in five years. However, it spends little time considering what are the one or two critical challenges that must be addressed to make this goal a reality. In other words they have established a commendable goal but still have to discern a good strategy to achieve that goal. Many boards, once they have articulated two or three key goals seem to expect that it will just happen. The hard work of defining a good strategy to achieve the goal is either delegated implicitly to the ministry staff or just ignored. And if it is delegated to the ministry staff, little accountability is required. Often what emerges is a “to do list,” but without a coherent and consistent strategy that is identifying these activities as the critical ones.

What can a church board chair do to help the board “discover the crucial factors in a situation and design a way to coordinate and focus actions to deal with them?” First, the chairperson must be convinced personally that advancing the congregation’s mission requires clear definition of a limited number of key, specific goals. And then for each goal a particular strategy needs to be discerned and implemented to overcome critical challenges and enable the congregation to achieve that goal. If as chair you do not see the importance of these matters, then you will not give time and effort to facilitating the board’s work in this area. Practically speaking, agendas will not deal with such matters. Second, the chairperson must have some competence in the area of strategic planning, so that as interaction with the lead pastor about these matters occurs significant questions are asked and good planning emerges. If neither the chair nor the lead pastor have any competence in these matters, then the board will be severely hampered in its ability to offer the strategic leadership it is mandated to provide to the congregation. Third, the chairperson would be advised to encourage the board to engage in some education and professional development so that it knows what “good strategy” looks like and has some coaching in developing good strategy. One way to do this is to discern a local congregation whose board and key ministry leaders have some wisdom about this and are being somewhat successful in its implementation. Then ask that board chair and lead pastor to visit with your board and share how they are doing it and what the benefits have been. Many board members are intimidated by the term ‘strategy’ and do not understand why it is important or how strategic planning is done well.

Perhaps as a way to get started you as chair might schedule in  the next board agenda a discussion about one of the key goals the congregation has adopted. The discussion paper you prepare for that conversation would outline the major goals the board/congregation have adopted and then in regards to the particular goal you have selected, ask a series of questions. How does the board know whether progress towards achieving that goal has been made during the past 12 months? What evidence is there for this advancement? Can the board identify the critical challenges that hinder achievement and what specific strategies are being adopted to deal with those critical challenges? If there is no specific strategy, what should the board do develop one? Is the goal still significant or does it need to be reworked.  By posing such questions you begin to help board members think about some of the basic concepts inherent in good strategy and whether the board is at this point addressing its responsibility to develop and implement good strategy.

I am not sure what is worse — pursuing bad strategy or having no strategy. However, in reality every church board has adopted or permitted some kind of strategy explicitly or implicitly. So the key question is whether the strategy is good or bad, using Rumelt’s definitions.

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