How to Recycle Your Strategy to Reset Your Life Cycle

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About this series...

 Welcome to our third post about organizational life cycles and, more importantly, how to avoid the normative decline and death that concludes the cycle. 

 

If you missed the previous post, read it here:

In this post, we focus on the effect strategy has in each phase. 

Let’s get to some recycling strategies. 

Before you read through this, one quick note: If you are a church leader, the next post will be dedicated to you. Coming next is the How to Recycle Your Church. We’ll examine each life cycle phase and discuss strategies, methods, and models for each. If you know anyone in church leadership not following along, now would be a great time to loop them into this conversation.

Alright. Let’s jump in…

Is the Organizational Life Cycle our Organizational Destiny?

Yes. And no.

Organizational “Life Cycles” don’t have to define your organizational life. Unlike people, decline and death don’t have to be the final chapter. IF…

And it’s a bit “IF…”

If we can lead our organization to adopt a new strategy, model, or approach. The only way to avoid the normative life cycle is to interrupt the cycle. We’re calling that an organizational “recycle.”

In fact, strategy plays a critical role in the life cycle process at each phase along the way. As we said in the first post, strategy is the engine that fuels our organization.

As a quick review, most organizations start, grow, and thrive before slowly stagnating into decline. The problem isn’t your organization. It’s your strategies, methods, and plans. Strategies are created for present realities. Models are built for moments. Which means strategies are time-stamped. They are perfectly adept for the time they are made. When that time passes, the model ceases to be as relevant. The further away you get from the strategy formation moment, the less relevant your approach becomes.

Interestingly, this is clearly evident throughout the life cycle. At each stage, strategy plays an integral role. At times, strategy moves things forward. At times strategy keeps things going. And, at times, clinging to a strategy creates our problems.

How Strategy Affects the "Cycle"

Strategy and approach affect the dynamics of each cycle phase. Let’s evaluate how. And like the previous post, see if you can determine where your church, company, business, or organization currently lives in the cycle.

Creation Phase

As we said in the previous post, during the Creation Phase, there is no organization — just an idea and plenty of passion. As the mission and concept solidify, the entrepreneur forms some version of a strategy to add intentionally. There is no “organization” in this phase, but there is a clear need for some organizing. Hence the initial strategy. The first strategic moment in the life cycle is meant to allow the idea to become something better than a concept. Strategy in this phase is all about chaos management and forward movement.

How Strategy Moves Us Forward:

It’s pretty simple in this birthing phase: Create some systems. Even rudimentary systems. Create a calendar and schedule strategy. Engage in financial and accounting processes. Be more intentional with suppliers and inventory. You know, the basics that can bring some clarity to the chaos.

How Ignoring Strategy Holds Us Back:

Entrepreneurs or church planters unable or unwilling to embrace strategic systems and plans never make it out of the chaos and, therefore, never scale their idea. These initial strategies are more about surviving than thriving. Organizations that can’t bring systems to bear on their vision don’t survive.

Orchestration Phase

The initial strategy, model, or approach leads the idea out of creation and into orchestration. In the previous post, we noted that this phase can take years or even decades to mature, depending on the business.

The original idea is formed into a superior product, service, or experience as plans, systems, methods, and strategies are added. Basically, more intention is added to the mission. While the initial strategies support survival during the Creation Phase, plans, systems, and models are now designed to scale the company or church.

How Strategy Moves Us Forward:

During Orchestration, the organization forms. With it comes many new plans and strategies to add scale, which adds more need for management. But this is a good thing — for the moment. Managing scale is the best way to ensure steady, controlled growth. This looks different in each type of organization, but the principles are the same. Orchestration brings increased attention to systems and strategies.

How Ignoring Strategy Holds Us Back:

Entrepreneurs or church planters who relish the chaos of creation can struggle to embrace the necessary intentionality to grow. In the marketplace, these leaders add enough intention to survive the start-up phase but are unwilling or unable to continue adding intentionality for growth. If the company persists in this phase, it will remain immature and underdeveloped. Customers come. And they go. Products sell until they don’t. The lack of strategy impedes scalability.

In a church, a lack of thought-through ministry modeling limits the church’s ability to reach people and support the faith growth of those in the congregation. From my experience, this is one of the two most common problems in churches. Pastors launch the church, but passion doesn’t scale. Passion alone isn’t enough to mature a model. Guests attend church, but their experience isn’t sufficient to convert them to contributing family members. Strong leaders appear and quickly disappear due to the lack of organizational thinking.

Church leaders love to allow space for the Holy Spirit and organic experiences. That’s fine. And that can be done in tandem with strategic thinking. But finances need systems. Evangelism demands a studied approach. Discipleship happens best through a well-designed process. Volunteers want and need systems for support.

Success without a strategy is accidental and unrepeatable. These churches never mature and often return to chaos over and over again.

As I said, stay tuned for the next post for more on church leadership in each phase.

Maturation Phase

Maturation feels like a desired destination. With well-considered and executed strategies, the organization moves forward into maturity. Initially, scale and growth continue but are more effortless. After all, it isn’t our first rodeo! We’ve tweaked our strategies, systems, and approach to fine-tune everything.

In a way, this is a picture of success. But as we all know, success is dangerous. What got us here rarely gets us there. Our initial chaos led to growth which led to where we are today. We are mature. We understand our company or church. We know our customers and community. Or, we think we do. Perhaps unknown to us, the world has changed. As we orchestrated, the world evolved.

As we said in the previous post, mature organizations often move from serving the mission to serving the model. In maturity, the organization that formed during growth is now organized to execute what is, not what could or should be. Old strategies would be sufficient in present realities if the world remained stagnant. But nothing is fixed. Customer preferences and taste change. Culture changes. Opinions change. Nothing stays the same.

How Strategy Moves Us Forward:

This is a dangerous moment for the organization. Leaders create while managers orchestrate. In many mature organizations, management begins to dominate the landscape. This moment represents our first recycling opportunity. Innovating and creating a new division, product, service, or concept can lead us forward, introducing a new round of chaos. But again, this is much more challenging than the first time we created and launched. Now, there’s more to lose.

The path forward is, in a manner of speaking, backward. We must celebrate what was and even what is, but not attach so closely to it that it becomes our identity. How you’ve been doing it may differ from how you should keep doing it.

How Ignoring Strategy Holds Us Back:

The Maturity Phase is where we begin seeing cracks in the organizational foundation. Until this point, the fractures in the system were caused by growth and innovation. These were “good problems.” Now, the problems are driven by the strategy rather than a need for a plan.

There are a few ways organizations falter in the Maturation Phase:

      • Previous Success Kills Future Opportunities: Initially, there was nothing to lose. But now? There is plenty at stake. We have a staff, inventory, and clarity in our approach. Our previous success can become a roadblock for our future.
      • Pride Comes Before the Fall: “We’re too big to fail.” Famous last words. Organizational pride keeps a company or church focused on previous achievements. Humility reminds organizational leaders that there is always more to learn.
      • Overwhelming Management: We’ve covered this ad nauseam, so I won’t reiterate it all again. Simply stated, management is designed to keep things as they are. The more managers we have, the more control and oversight we experience. That can be stifling for leaders and the organization. If you’ve ever seen an exodus of leaders in an organization, this is a likely reason.

It’s easy to see how maturity can easily lead to decline and, eventually, death. Antiquated strategies are irrelevant to our current realities. Latching onto a model that no longer works only leads an organization or church in one direction.

Preservation Phase

Orchestration (management) peaks as maturation gives way to preservation.

In the Preservation Phase, “the way we do it around here” is so ingrained that to change is akin to blasphemy. Although antiquated and only partially applicable, the strategy is so ingrained that it feels impossible to change.

Not to mention how much has changed around the organization by this point. It takes years or decades to arrive at this phase, giving the world, community, and your customers ample time to evolve multiple times. You’ve heard the phrase, “A solution looking for a problem.” Well, in a way, organizations in the Preservation Phase are “companies looking for customers.” Or “models looking for ministry.”

How Strategy Moves Us Forward:

The organization is now declining, albeit slowly at first. Great leaders recognize this decline and refuse to make excuses. Instead, they work towards new solutions and strategies. This is the last real hope for organizational recycling.

New thinking is required to revitalize the organization. Often this comes from new people. My friend and former boss Andy Stanley once said, “Let’s not do what a previous generation did and assume that what’s appealing today will be appealing tomorrow.” As a current leader in an organization experiencing preservation, you’re most likely that previous generation leader. You’ll need to enlist new, different, and younger leaders to consider new and improved strategies.

The further down the preservation slope the organization slides, the more challenging recovery becomes. Additionally, as the slope increases, the more necessary a change in leadership is likely. You can imagine how rarely executive leaders are willing to relinquish their position. Hence most organizations in preservation end up in deterioration rather than recovery through recycling.

Bringing us to our Preservation Phase problem.

How Ignoring Strategy Holds Us Back:

The most common failure during preservation is to change the dressing without changing the product and strategy. Some call this “putting lipstick on a pig.” As the organization sees it, it’s a strategic issue only. Not a people or leadership problem.

Let’s use a smartphone as our illustration. Old phones are slow phones. The battery is weak, apps won’t update, and the camera stinks. You would never buy a new phone case and believe the phone would function anew. Nobody puts on a new case and exclaims, “Look at my new phone. Look how great the battery works!” Yet, this is precisely what organizations do in preservation. They adopt new words or values (or even tweak the mission) without changing the core approach. And they believe it will make a difference.

To the previous point, this is what established organizational leaders do. Especially founders. Letting go of the model you created and watched grow is perhaps their most challenging leadership decision. Yet, ignoring new strategies brought by new people with fresh eyes is the killer blindspot in preservation.

The only way to change the future is to change the model. That often means leaders humbling themselves into a backseat role or a more collaborative space. Your organization is perfectly designed for the results you’re experiencing. Only leaders willing to get out of the way (literally or figuratively) can salvage a recycling attempt. As you can imagine, this rarely happens.

Moreover, too many young and hungry leaders have probably left for more organizational pliable pastures. This exodus began in maturation and has now expedited. An organization full of managers and void of leaders is a doomed organization.

Deterioration and Expiration Phase

I hate to say it this way, but holding on as long as possible is the primary goal in deterioration. It’s painful to watch leaders experience this phase. Memories of a past gone by dominate most meetings. Stories are shared, and the past is romanticized. The primary topics of conversation are the legendary stories, funny moments, and surprising successes experienced during creation, orchestration, and maturation. Finally, the industry now sees the organization’s leadership as a wise sage, not the innovator of the past. People appreciate and respect what was done, but few, if anyone, look to the organization for new ideas.

How Strategy Moves Us Forward:

At this point, it doesn’t. The proverbial end is near and nearly impossible to rectify. The best hope is for the organization to change everything from the top down, including the brand, organizational name, and leadership. Success now looks like restarting in a Creation Phase with a brand new concept.

The dying organization has a role to play, though. The best case is that a debt-free organization can help fund new ideas. Businesses can donate equipment. Churches can hand over buildings. Strategically, ending well is the better option, as the ending is happening, like it or not. Hospice is here.

How Ignoring Strategy Holds Us Back:

Like a grumpy grandpa, the deteriorating organization that refused to end well can only die angry. If you could get inside the head and heart of the organizational leadership, you’d see shame more than anger, though. Shame for not listening more as the organization matured. Shame for not seeing preservation for what it was. Shame for allowing so many young leaders to leave who had ideas and strategies that may have worked. And shame for having so little to show at the end for all that was in the past.

As in life, shame creates blame, and most leaders who were unwilling to let go in the previous phases rarely can own their mistakes in the end. Hence we see anger. Shame manifests in blame which appears as anger. But really, it’s just sadness.

At this point, no strategy can recycle the cycle. Recycling in preservation is possible. Perhaps even in the early stages of deterioration. But there’s nothing left to do for an organization on life support other than decide when to pull the plug.

Conclusion

Organizational “Life Cycles” don’t have to define your organizational life. Unlike people, decline and death don’t have to be the final chapter. But this takes strong leadership with the foresight to accurately assess the current reality, consider new and potentially uncomfortable strategies, and trust other leaders while resisting the controlling nature of management.

That sentence alone is an excellent reminder of why most organizational life cycles are rarely recycled.

As a reminder, the next post will be focused on church leadership. If you are a church leader, make sure you’re subscribed. And if you know other church leaders, pass this along so we can improve the Church in every community.

Talk again soon, 

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