No, Every Organization is NOT a Startup Now

Ted Esler

This past week we have seen a flurry of articles that, if you are leader, should be very unsettling. One of the most read was, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup.” This article, and many others, are making the case that leaders rethink their organizations from the ground up. That’s good advice – that leaders should be considering all the time. We hire CEOs to think deeply about the mission and how to deliver on that mission. Not to sustain an organization in its current state.

If you read the article closely, what they are really saying is that we cannot “wait out” this crisis. And that is great advice. The three phases framework they suggest (short, mid and long term) is also helpful.

Here is what I did not appreciate about the article. Life is not starting over, for you or for your organization. You may or may not want to consider yourself in start-up mode. It depends.

A start-up is a blank slate. Anybody leading an existing organization knows that they are not working with a blank slate. They have people, processes, commitments, a mission and, hopefully, some expertise about what they are doing.

I understand that there is an innovation problem for those that see current methodologies as sacrosanct. I often ask leaders to differentiate between mission and method. But knee jerk reactions our of leaders are the last thing we need.

The article stated, “This time poses the greatest leadership crisis any of us have faced.” Really? What if your organization was focused on church planting among Muslims and the year was 2001? That whole “War on Terror” thing was a pretty big deal if that was your mission. What if your mission was focused in China and the government just kicked all foreigners out? Sound familiar? I could go on, but you get the idea. I realize that some people will lose their lives and family. I am not diminishing the crisis we face. We should be careful, though, about jumping off cliffs organizationally because everybody else is doing it.

Contrary to the image of mission agencies as old, inflexible bureaucratic machines, most have experienced waves of existential threats. Yet, mission agencies have adapted and remade themselves. Perhaps the most significant period of remaking has been over the past 15 years. Constant critiques over effectiveness, colonialism, and relevancy have combined with a lack of biblical awareness in the larger church. This has forced agencies to adopt new methods and models. There has been a great deal of change. Yet, here we still are, showing a resiliency that we must look toward once again.

For churches this is an existential threat. They cannot meet and many of them do not know how members will respond regarding tithes and offerings. They need an emergency tactical plan for the first few weeks. The situation for Great Commission organizations is somewhat different. We are, for the most part, not staffed in the same way as a church nor do we require the same sort of physical plant that most churches have.

Make decisions in the short term that are tactically smart. Shore up your defenses, put together your contingency plan and rework your operating budget around new realities. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. At least not yet.

Make longer term decisions in a thoughtful manner. Gather data, take time to sift it and do not get bum rushed into something you may regret later. If you shift the entire business model to something new and challenging and it does not work, you might be entering into an even larger leadership challenge than you have now. For almost all of us, it is too early to know what the best course of action is going to be. Things will be clearer in a few weeks at the earliest, and a few months at the best. Of the “known knowns,” fundraising challenges are probably of the highest probability.

The mission is still the mission. Go back and re-read your former mission statement. Nothing has changed that mission. If something has, then it should have been changed already.

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