I called them "Willow Wanna-Be's." Back in my Willow Creek Association days, pastors and church board members would show up, often unannounced, and ask for 10 Easy Bullet Points on Growing a Really Big Church. (Actually, they never had time for 10 points. "Make it three--but give us your best stuff.")
So, we'd talk about Kingdom principles and the church's mission and heart to reach seekers. Later, we talked about strategy--the God-honoring kind. But the Looky Lou's (look it up--a descriptive Chicago traffic term) would ask about plexiglass pulpits, drama scripts, and cool lighting.
Had Ian Morgan Cron's book been written back then, I would have quoted chapter and verse from Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale. Cron's fictional megachurch pastor-in-crisis, reminisces, "I remember telling our architect that I wanted all the technological goodies you'd find in a world-class performing arts center. Looking back, I realize that what I had asked for was `lights, camera, action!' rather than `Father, Son and Holy Ghost.'"
I was reminded of my Willow days (good memories) last week when I re-read the classic Harvard Business Review article, "What Is Strategy?" by Michael E. Porter. He writes, "Bit by bit, almost imperceptibly, management tools have taken the place of strategy."
Citing the conventional wisdom over the previous two decades where "managers have been learning to play by a new set of rules," Porter dismisses that corruption with this zinger: "But those beliefs are dangerous half-truths, and they are leading more and more companies down the path of mutually destructive competition."
What is strategy? Porter has five bullet points in his 18-page article:
Number 1: "Operational effectiveness is not strategy." He notes, "The root of the problem is the failure to distinguish between operational effectiveness and strategy."
Number 2: "Strategy rests on unique activities." The poster companies here are Southwest Airlines and Ikea. "Strategic competition can be thought of as the process of perceiving new positions that woo customers from established positions or draw new customers into the market." Strategic positions can have three sources: variety-based positioning, needs-based positioning, and access-based positioning.
Number 3: "A sustainable strategic position requires trade-offs." Porter writes, "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do."
Remember Continental Lite, the Southwest Airlines wanna-be? They decided to "straddle" their position as a full-service airline (hubs), while competing in some markets with Southwest (Point A to Point B). They confused their full-service customers and infuriated travel agents. "Trade-offs ultimately grounded Continental Lite. The airline lost millions of dollars, and the CEO lost his job." Bottom line: "Continental paid an enormous straddling penalty."
Number 4: "Fit drives both competitive advantage and sustainability." What is Southwest's core competence? Its key success factors? The correct answer is that everything matters. Southwest's strategy involves a whole system of activities, not a collection of parts. Its competitive advantage comes from the way its activities fit and reinforce one another."
And get this, Looky Lou's: "Fit locks out imitators by creating a chain that is as strong as its strongest link." It's not the seeker service drama, or the band, or the spiritual gifts training, or small groups, or pastors in old jeans with no socks--it's the whole, holy enchilada.
Three half-page diagrams, "Mapping Activity Systems," for Ikea, Vanguard and Southwest Airlines deliver the "Aha!" insight on what Porter means by fit--"nests of tightly linked activities." He writes, "Positions built on systems of activities are far more sustainable than those built on individual activities."
"Fit means that poor performance in one activity will degrade the performance in others, so that weaknesses are exposed and more prone to get attention. Conversely, improvements in one activity will pay dividends in others."
With just three pages to go, Porter finally reveals his mega-simple definition: "Strategy is creating fit among a company's activities." He comments, "The success of a strategy depends on doing many things well--not just a few--and integrating among them. If there is no fit among activities, there is no distinctive strategy and little sustainability."
Number 5: "Rediscovering strategy." In his wrap-up, Porter warns about "the failure to choose" and the "growth trap." Churches beware: "Among all other influences, the desire to grow has perhaps the most perverse effect on strategy." He concludes with five soul-searching questions.
My gut: many nonprofits, churches and companies do not have--at their core--a revenue problem or new idea problem; they have a strategy problem. This is a powerful article.