It’s All About Mission



I was looking at some photos recently and came across some taken when I was in Kakadu and Litchfield National parks in the Northern Territory a few years ago.


We really do live in a magnificent country – timeless mountains, gorges, waterfalls, and rivers full of fish (and crocodiles), birds and wildlife. We saw aboriginal drawings from tens of thousands of years ago and many a termite mound. Some were small and new and some looked old with only a few members. Some were over five metres tall and, we were told, over 50 years old with thousands of members. All groups of ants were part of the wide termite family, yet each mound was operating as a fairly autonomous group.


We learned that each of these mounds were quite sophisticated organisations. The structures have been built to preserve the core at a constant temperature. The position and outcrops of the mound are not random, but rather aligned with the earth’s magnetic poles and rotation in relation to the sun, so that a minimised face is exposed during the hottest part of the day and appropriate levels of shade are created.


We also learned that throughout the termite organisation, there is continuous monitoring of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as internal core temperature, food supplies, health of the queen and so on. Each generation of ant seems to know what to do and when to do it. There is constant building, food gathering and micro-adjustment work being carried out by all the members to ensure optimal organisational performance and advancement of the common termite cause.


Interestingly, if there is a significant change in the environment, like a falling branch breaking off one section, workers don’t just begin fixing or replacing what was broken. Instead, the mound may be adjusted in many other areas to bring the core as efficiently as possible back into the optimal zone. Some form of common understanding of the whole, as well as systems thinking, seems to prevail. So, the core is preserved whilst some of the organisational structure, internal workflows and individual work routines are changed for the good of the whole.


My reflections on the termite mound bought to mind Churches of Christ – our churches, care services and many other ministry groups such as the Men’s Sheds, Alpha groups, food banks, op shops etcetera that are part of our wide family of Churches of Christ in Queensland. No two are identical, yet all share a common mission. Some large, some small, some old and some new, but each working with their own “mound”. Hopefully they adapt and evolve to adjust to the changing environment they find themselves in, and hopefully they adjust according to what’s needed to preserve the core of who we are and what we stand for – Loving God, loving our neighbour, and training others in the way of Jesus. Furthermore, they’re hopefully advancing our common cause and mission of bringing the light of Christ into communities.


Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ globally acclaimed research published in their 1995 book “Built to Last” found three major characteristics of organisations that survived and prospered over the longer term of 50 plus years. These organisations:


  1. Preserve the core and stimulate growth.


    Great organisations fervently preserve their core while at the same time stimulating progress in non-core areas. They take steps to make their ideology pervasive throughout the organisation and beyond, and they transcend any individual leader. However, they also stimulate experimentation and learning so that in a changing world, they are prepared and able to change everything about themselves except their core values – essential and enduring tenets – and purpose – fundamental reasons for existence.


    In multiple ways these organisations deliberately build and powerfully reinforce a distinctive organisational culture that embodies their core ideology. At the same time they have a commitment to challenging, audacious and often risky goals and projects toward which they channel their efforts to stimulate progress. Collins called these “big, hairy, audacious goals”, or “BHAGs”. For example Ford’s “car for the average family man”, JFK’s “man on the moon”, Bill Gates’ “computer on every desk”, Steve Jobs’ “iPhone”, or better still Jesus’ “love your neighbour as yourself”.


  3. Build the organisation and its capability


    For the builders of great organisations, their greatest creation is the organisation itself and what it stands for; in our case “The Church”. The creating and building of a great organisation does not require either a great programme or a great and charismatic leader who can “tell the time” to everyone.


    The whole is much greater than any individual. Building an organisation that can prosper far beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple cycles is “clock building”. The builders of great organisations tend to be clock builders not time tellers; they build a clock so everyone can see the time, or truth if you prefer.


  5. Maintain consistent alignment


    Great organisations seek consistent alignment of all the elements of each group and work together in concert within the context of the organisation’s core ideology and the type of progress it aims to achieve. Constant monitoring of critical KPIs is maintained and adjustments made to ensure optimal organisational performance.


    Great organisations seek consistent alignment of all the elements of each group and work together in concert within the context of the organisation’s core ideology and the type of progress it aims to achieve. Constant monitoring of critical KPIs is maintained and adjustments made to ensure optimal organisational performance.


    It is also a never-ending process of identifying and doggedly correcting misalignments. If building layout impedes progress, change the layout or move. If the strategy is misaligned with the core, change the strategy. If behaviours are being rewarded that are inconsistent with the core, change the system. If the structure inhibits progress, change the organisation structure. The only sacred cow is the core ideology, or mission. Anything else can be changed or eliminated.

As I turn my mind back to the termite mounds, I idly wonder whether there are any demotivated termites and how the organisation manages these members…but that’s for another article.


This article was first published in the 2013 Better Boards Conference Magazine.

Avatar About Dean Phelan

Dean Phelan is the Chief Executive Officer of Churches of Christ in Queensland, which includes one of Australia’s largest NFPs providing aged care, retirement living, social & affordable housing, in home community care, child, youth and family services. Dean’s major skills are in the areas of organisational governance, leadership, organisational psychology and people management. He has extensive experience in the health care and social service sectors having been chairman of two private company boards and several NFP organisations. Dean has extensive professional qualifications and has trained as a spiritual director. He is a member of the Australian Psychological Society and AICD.

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