Monthly Archives: May 2013

It is Not Good . . . but It Can Be

In The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber recognizes three primary roles in any successful business: the entrepreneur, the manager, and the technician. He describes these roles but is more concerned that small businesses fulfill all three and find success by the interactions of them. He attributes the failure of most small businesses to the lack of understanding the necessity of these roles and the often absence of one or more of them.

We often hear Christian teachers extol the merits of the material world by referencing God’s repeated utterance, recorded in Genesis 1, that each stage of creation was good (six times) and, finally complete, very good. But Genesis 2:18 reports that in the midst of the process of creation (related to Genesis 1:27 where God created humankind in his own image, male and female), there was one thing “not good” – that Adam was alone.

I have written previously that Adam’s prosperity – both materially and spiritually – hinged on the division of labor. On the material side, we easily recognize how the market (the realm of exchanges) optimizes labor to produce by a community of workers far more than individuals could produce all working in isolation to meet their material needs. Henry Ford is credited with bringing modern production to a whole new level and in developed economies we see worker productivity continue to rise with ever more diversified vocational specialization and the introduction of new and improved technologies. Those technologies are products of the division of labor, dreamt up and created by theorists, engineers, and production workers, and delivered to consumers by marketeers, transportation specialists, and storekeepers.

In small enterprises, the dearth of diverse role players can be glaring. To begin, tackling  the analyses of the purpose of the business or agency, the role requirements of operation, and, finally, “who is in the room?” is helpful. It is not good for our organizations if gaps exist in the structures needed to succeed, like cogs missing from a gear. It is worse (or will become so) if we do not recognize and fix the missing cogs.

The first step, understanding purpose, is to consider what Jim Collins calls our hedgehog in his seminal book, Good to Great. Collins (citing Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, 1993) states: “Hedgehogs…simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.”

My wife works for Special Olympics – Georgia (SOGA). The national organization has their mission statement on their web site: “The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.” SOGA has three major events a year – Summer Games, Fall Games, and Winter Games – plus a number of smaller events. The major events can draw upward of three thousand athletes and their families. All the work of SOGA’s staff of more than twenty people is focused year round on making sure those events take place and run smoothly.

Defining purpose requires narrow focus. What is it you want your business or agency to be? While some think the process of writing a business plan is passé, even if one is not written down, it is wise to think through all the questions a business plan forces you to address to avoid unforeseen pitfalls like under-capitalization, poor labor planning, bad location choice, etc. Having a clear mission statement helps determine the answer to all those questions.

The next analysis is to sort out the organizational roles to execute a small business or not-for-profit agency well. This is where Gerber’s assessment of the three primary roles holds up to scrutiny. While I will diverge somewhat from Gerber’s text, I take the three roles seriously in reflecting on my own history of owning several small businesses and serving on multiple not-for-profit boards.

To start a new enterprise requires vision. That seems easy enough and is typically the product of the entrepreneur casting vision. The entrepreneur may or may not be able to clearly articulate the mission succinctly but s/he is the one who steps up and says, “Hey! We could do something in this space!” The mission statement may be a collaborative articulation between interested partners or the singular entrepreneur but in any case it should be simple and clear. In 1993, my wife and I opened a bicycle shop with the express vision “to provide the best bicycles, bicycle-related equipment, and bicycle service available to the community” That ultimately resulted in introducing recumbent bicycles to our market and overwhelming success, all in a small rural town of 18,000 in West Central Indiana.

Look around. Who is the visionary in your midst? As said, it may be a collective voice but, as Proverbs 29:18 implies, “where there is no vision, the people are disoriented,” and will accomplish little more than expending energy. Start with a clear purpose, and listen carefully to the visionary as they survey the world in front of them and guide the operation to meet needs, both internal and external, effectively.

Gerber’s second role (though these are not necessarily hierarchical so much as complementary) is the manager. My wife is an accountant. She likes the routines of repetitive processes. She brings order out of chaos with numbers and records and filing systems. Frankly, that kind of work drives me to distraction. Her skill sets and interests were almost perfectly complementary to mine in our bicycle business. She placed orders and kept the books while I researched products and created marketing plans. While we shared the oversight of the business, she provided our accountant with the data necessary to keep an eye on our profitability, and so on. The manager handles the daily things – personnel records, scheduling and payroll, accounts payable and paying the bills, making sure the window cleaner comes every week, and so on.

Who is the most organized person in your enterprise? Sadly, too many start-ups, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, assume recordkeeping, in fact, keeping order in general, is easy. It is not. That is why there are professional accountants who offer a long list of services to make sure employees, vendors, and taxing agencies get paid on time. Organization is often tedious and time-consuming but without it inventories can grow unchecked and cash flow disappears, employees remain untrained and productivity is actually counterproductive, marketing and advertising opportunities are missed and customers or donors never hear of your offerings or the good you want to do in the community.

Finally, Gerber introduces the technician. This is where most small businesses begin: at the workbench. John may make the best cupcakes in the world but making good cupcakes and starting, owning, and running a retail store are two very different recipes. Sally may have grown up at her father’s side working on small engines in the family garage but transferring the knowledge she gained to a for-profit repair shop requires a new and different set of tools.

Technicians are the actual production arm of the enterprise. No business or not-for-profit agency can function without someone, even if it is a troupe of volunteers, handling the nitty-gritty work of getting goods and services out the door. It is easy to see that Gerber has captured a legitimate snapshot of how enterprises work. Lest we think his focus is entirely on the marketplace, think also of how a hospital works – with doctors, nurses, and attendants (technicians), clerks and administrators (managers), and a founding board (entrepreneurs). Churches, government agencies, universities, businesses – they all operate on the same basic model.

But the best organizations take hostage the “not good” of Genesis 2:18 by recognizing that to be most effective they must work in the most ecological way, collaborating between all three of the roles described above. Keith Sawyer explains, in his book Group Genius, that large, successful companies are developing collaborative strategies that surpass the performance of older models. In the past, it has been generally accepted that the best solution to an engineering problem is to get a bunch of engineers together to hash out possible solutions. Sawyer contends that some enterprises are finding much more creative solutions through interdisciplinary collaborations, bringing together accountants, engineers, marketers, managers, etc.

The first company I co-founded (with a high school friend shortly after college) created test equipment for computers. Part of the product was the software that would help our test boards interact with the computer under analysis. I was the business manager for that company while my partner was both entrepreneur and technician. Along the way, I learned that engineers are all geniuses. That may be a bit of an overstatement but I believe they can do far more than they sometimes think they can but sometimes they need a different perspective to challenge them.

On more than one occasion, as I thought about marketing our products, I would think of really cool things we could offer the end-user “if only” our products could do X, Y, or Z. Typically if I approached one of our engineers with the idea I would immediately be given all the reasons why it could not be done. But I understand enough about digital logic to know that if my suggestion was logical, it was likely doable. It might not prove profitable but it was at least doable. We could worry about a financial feasibility study only if we came to an affirmative conclusion in the technological feasibility first. In nearly every case (probably four or five times), within a matter of a week or two, the particular engineer came to me and would open with, “I was thinking about the question you had and if we were to…” They, at least in theory, had overcome what had been impossible to their previous way of thinking. An outside impetus jarred them into thinking in a new way but well within their capacity.

The problem these engineers had was that they had put on the blinders of their own profession. Over time, electrical engineers, like business operators, or surgeons, or accountants, find certain practices effective and manageable. But sometimes innovation must occur. One must die to the old self, in effect, and be transformed into a new self, to move from one way of thinking to having a different vision. This sounds suspiciously like the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) especially if we embrace that God can accomplish anything in and through us (Matthew 19:26).

This is of particular importance to the Church in our day for the cause of Christ. Elton Trueblood was a twentieth century theologian and author (thirty three books!) who also served as chaplain at both Harvard and Stanford universities during his career. His book, The Company of the Committed, now more than fifty years old, saw the need in his day that remains with us to rethink how we are the Church in reaching the world. He believed that ministry to God (worship) and the world (holistic evangelism, in both Word and deed) will be best served if we are open to innovative strategies, adaptable to our surrounding circumstances, and seeking many and diverse counselors (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6).

From the smallest not-for-profit, to Fortune 500 companies, to the mission of God (the largest enterprise in human history), it is best if we understand what it is we aim to accomplish (entrepreneurial), how to organize and oversee the enterprise (managerial), and then effectively activate workers (mechanical). We will accomplish far more if we can recognize the skill and personnel gaps within the organization and shore them up. And we will accomplish more still by interdisciplinary collaboration and encouraging everyone involved to develop and leverage their unique specialties (what economists call comparative advantage).

God designed creation such that it is good, in fact, it is best, when we work together in harmony as a reflection of the perfect, cooperative, creative, and productive Trinitarian God. It is best because our image-bearing, as the community of God’s people, will bear witness to the world to God’s glory and goodness. Then the world will be witness to “a wise and understanding people, near to God, just and righteous” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8).

And perhaps, in taking a holy approach to and in execution of our earthly endeavors, we will discover the spiritual prosperity that Adam could only practice in league with one of his own kind, Eve, also made in the image of God. And that is indeed (“in deed”) very good.

Bibliography

Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Business, 2001.

Gerber, Michael E. The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. New York: Harper Business, 2001.

Sawyer, Keith. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Trueblood, Elton. The Company of the Committed: A Bold and Imaginative Re-thinking of the Strategy of the Church in Contemporary Life. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1961. Out of print; available online at http://www.ccel.us/company.toc.html: accessed May 22, 2013.

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From Wait to Walk: Enterprise Life Cycles

(With a special shout out to my newly acquired friends, SB and DH.)

In the midst of a recent conversation, Isaiah 40:31 – “Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” – seemed suddenly clear as a model for Christian entrepreneurship and business life-cycling.

Having been a three-peat entrepreneur, I understand perfectly the energy and excitement of launching a new enterprise. Since any new undertaking is battling inertia – trying to get something rolling where no action has previously occurred – the energy level that entrepreneurs bring to the table is one of the four most critical components to early growth and sustainability (the others being location, capital, and marketing plan, at least to my thinking).

The energy required is drawn from the zeal of our belief that the undertaking itself is not only a good idea but borders on destiny or fate or calling, or whatever other terms (or combinations thereof) might seem most appropriate. That that energy is present is critical in that the specific challenges of a start-up are unique to that phase of business development. It is good, then, that in that phase we should soar or mount up with wings like eagles. First, our vision must be acute. While embedded in the diverse hat-wearing, often filling many roles in a single day within the organization, the entrepreneur must ever keep eyes wide open to see the broader landscape and be prepared to adjust their flight direction, speed, and trajectory to hit specific targets in real time. The combination of eagle-like vision and the altitude of its flight in search of prey lend themselves analogously to the entrepreneur’s readiness and ability to strike quickly when opportunity presents itself.

The second phase of the business life cycle is an interim phase after the launch has gained some footing but is not yet classified as a mature endeavor. This transitional phase will find the business leader often still wearing many different hats, despite having already fitted suitable matches to several key positions within the enterprise. In this phase, the leader may still be clarifying vision, for investors and key personnel alike, dealing with many unexpected developments on a daily, or at least weekly, basis, and nuancing the company’s product or service offerings within the greater context of its targeted markets or their industry at-large. Running without tiring requires clinging to that initial energy brought by the sense of destiny as the company begins its transition toward maturity. It is still a very formative time in many ways and may require significant shifts that need thought through, explaining, multiple revision, and long hours of diligence to bring a level of consistency and durability to the enterprise.

This phase of the business requires a special endurance, like running or cycling, that can be bone-wearying but compelled to keep putting one foot in front of the other or turning the pedals at a heightened but disciplined pace. The business leader will be challenged by turns and rises where off-loading tasks and building trust in others will be necessary for them to sustain themselves and the enterprise for a longer term than the initial, sprint-like race of the start-up phase. Anyone who has trained in endurance sports will recognize there is a level of pain and suffering that must not only be tolerated but embraced to reach the goals necessary. Sometimes it is as simple as picking a particular point on the horizon as the next achievable goal while the finish line is still far off and nowhere in sight.

The final phase of an enterprise (and one can easily equate this sequence of mount up – run – walk with the phases of spiritual maturity) is one of settled trust and continued diligence, not just in effort but of oversight. Once an enterprise has achieved an enduring level of sustainable profitability, there are yet dangers along the road. It is not a time for laxity or sitting down. Rather, as any through-hiker on the Appalachian Trail will attest, some days the temptation to simply “stay put” must be resisted. There is an adage in business that unless you are moving forward, you are falling behind. The marketplace has always been and shall always be an evolving environment. Companies must introduce new products and services, or innovate on old ones, to keep pace with customer demands and the offerings of competitors. It is no time to rest on one’s laurels but the pace is one that can more carefully take in the details of the surrounding landscape and adapt with greater precision than when rushing headlong, like the downward strike flight of the eagle, or seeing with the often blurry vision of a runner.

In this phase, the ultimate endurance is required because there truly is no end in sight to the journey. It is a journey, to draw on a spiritual parallel, into perpetuity. The business leader must have arrived at a level of trust in the operation and the personnel in which only minor adjustments to either become the norm. But those minor adjustments represent the final path to overt excellence just as a master builder hones his craft, increasing both the aesthetic and material quality of their work over time. In the end, the master is sought out, their work more highly valued than the surrounding players in their market, commanding greater value in their work and their profitability. The subtle nuances, over time, will ensure the long term livelihood of the company, its employees, vendors, and community.

But the wisdom key to Isaiah 40:31 is in its opening phrasing: “Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength.” Any entrepreneur, and especially those who have started and operated their business over an extended period, can tell you that running a business is an arduous, often draining, endeavor. There are two components in this opening phrase of critical importance to the marketplace life of a Christian: waiting on the Lord and gaining new strength.

The Hebrew term most typically translated here as wait, is qavah, which means to “wait for with hope and expectation.” We see the damage done when Israel went up against Ai despite the Lord’s warning (Joshua 7). Or when Saul acted presumptuously by seeking the counsel of the medium at Endor (1 Samuel 28) rather than seeking the Lord for direction. Or when Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered “strange fire” before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1).

I often find myself mentally equating the exhortation to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) to waiting on the Lord and being still and knowing God (Psalm 46:10). There is, obviously, throughout Scripture the idea that God’s wisdom is far above our own and that by finding and following the counsel of God, we shall prosper. The human spirit, will, and intellect are enormously gifted in developing discipline, creativity, and reasoning. There are many solutions that we can create – such as finding a need in the marketplace and filling it – of our own volition and inventiveness. But we are fairly warned by the infamous (and when appropriate, omninous) opening words of Psalm 127:1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it.”

God provides the impetus and sustainability for creation. As the beginning and end of all reality, it is only by God’s design that creation truly prospers. As we seek and align ourselves with the will and ways of God, we shall find the energy, the strength, to endure all the phases of our entrepreneurial endeavors. Only then will our efforts be perfectly sustainable, life-inducing, and productive as it was in the Garden of Eden. Where the Lord leads (builds a house), he gives the wisdom, gifts, opportunities, and energy to succeed to those who are willing to wait, listen, and obey, and we shall not grow tired or become weary but shall soar where the whole world can see what the Lord has done to his glory.

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Bridge Ministry: The Twelfth MPM Model

Previously, I had written an essay, entitled “An Overview of Marketplace Ministry (MPM) Models,” offering a brief overview of eleven distinct but often highly integrated categories of marketplace ministry. Oddly enough, the one model category (now that I am up to twelve and others may very well yet emerge) that I neglected to include is the very one into which my own ministry (also named Eden’s Bridge) fits.

In 1997, a man from Pennsylvania laid hands upon me and prophesied that I was to become “deacon of deacons,” literally, servant of servants. As I understand my calling, I am to serve those serving Christ and the world in ministry, facilitating their ministries. The specific corner of the mission and ministry world of my work is in God’s movement in the marketplace. My main role is to provide information, whether raw data, such as statistical information or agency contact and profile information, or the explications of ideas, most especially in theological and biblical conversations concerning the marketplace, but also in conversations on marketplace ethics, strategic thinking, etc.,  and so on. From time to time, I also consult with small organizations in their start up or early development phases. In effect, my job is to provide whatsoever God might place in my hands and deem appropriate to share.

This plays well into my interest in being a writer but also my addiction to information. I once informed my spiritual mentor, a retired seminary professor, that one of my personal vexations was my desire to know everything. He laughed out loud and right to my face (oh!, the indignity) then assured me that that is, at least in my case, what eternity is for. And I was reassured and happy to hear it. But I digress.

Bridge ministries connect things, come in many forms, and may very well operate and remain in relative obscurity throughout their life cycle. And they provide a variety of vital services. In an army, bridge ministry equivalents would fulfill a spectrum of supply line duties. Or, in the case of a multinational corporation, bridge ministries would be similar to back office operations like accounting, tech support, or human resources. These ministries are vital to the success of the overarching enterprise (the mission of God) but will typically remain invisible to those being ministered to.

Where Eden’s Bridge has a more general information-based focus, other bridge ministries may provide consulting services for ministries moving into new geographies or forms of ministry in the field. Still others may provide organizational development or funding expertise and training, or help in connecting new or growing ministries with funding sources. As becomes quickly obvious, much like the semi-obscure world of business-to-business (B2B) enterprises, such as accounting or law firms and a myriad of other product and service vendors, bridge ministries play important and diverse roles in the overarching marketplace ministries movement.

Unfortunately, as bridge ministries emerge, they suffer misunderstanding by many Christians who may have a tenuous grasp (or no grasp at all) of God’s movement in the marketplace and the role of business in God’s Kingdom-advancing mission, the redemption of all creation. That suffering can manifest most harshly when trying to determine measurable impacts, and outcomes may be as vague as the entire notion of marketplace ministries to the uninformed.

As missiologists, missionaries, and marketplace Christians move forward in ministering through the auspices of the business community, and the variety and complexity of the multitude of emerging ministries grows, the role of bridge ministries will become increasingly specialized and increasingly necessary. Bridge ministries, like the army’s supply line, may benefit the most from educating the Church at-large to the prevalence of the business model on which all human institutions operate, including business functions obscured by not applying business terminology, such as seeing the budget constraints of households as accounting issues, fundraising outreach and grant writing efforts as the marketing arm of charitable organizations, and the volunteer  coordination in the local church as the business world would address human resources (including issues today of volunteer pre-screening and a variety of legal and liability issues!).

God created business – that is, exchange – when Eve was created as Adam’s co-worker, a pre-Fall acknowledgment of the “good” of the division of labor. Now, through the relationships and demonstration of God’s righteousness through marketplace ministries, the next great wave of Kingdom advancement is at hand. And I, and many other obscure workers, are honored to build bridges for the entire enterprise to move as smoothly forward as possible.

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