One clear question to see difficult decisions in a fresh light

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41aaz6qn2glChip and Dan Heath tell a story of the computer chip company, Intel.  Back in the 1970s Intel was well-known for making computer memory – at one point they had a near monopoly – but they were being increasingly challenged by high-quality overseas competition. At the same time, a small team inside Intel was working in the new area of microprocessors and had begun to make some impressive progress. So, should they stay with what they knew best, making memory, increasingly cheaply, or take the risk of moving into a new area, of microprocessors?  Both were uncertain, and it wasn’t a setting where both/and was a viable option.

The two senior people, the CEO and the president, were going round in circles on the question.  Then the president, Andy Grove, had a lightbulb moment.

I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I trend back to Gordon, and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”  Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.”

I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?” [1]

What a great crystallising question:  What would my successor do?  When I’m staring at two high-risk options, or a blank sheet of paper, or a stalemate problem, or a feeling that ‘We’ve tried this before.’

If you were applying for your currently ministry role, what would you offer to tackle first?

Because at some point, the question turns into, “What will my successor do?”  True, in Christian ministry we’re not subject to those same hard-nosed business decisions, where we have to clear our desks in an hour.  My study does not have a revealing door.  I’m not evaluated each week on the quality of my ministry, preaching or visiting.

And I can see that for those two Intel leaders, it was a moment of great personal clarity and threat.

But, at some point a group of people, some of whom you already know, will be sitting down, saying, “OK, what do we want the new pastor to do? Because for all that we love [insert your name here], there were some nettles that weren’t grasped, and some pretty obvious blind spots.”

Round about now, most of us can’t see beyond Christmas.  But the other side of that, when we all get a bit reflective, and wonder how ministry life should go next year, how about asking yourself that question?

And, how can I help my successor by taking those hard decisions now?


[1] Chip and Dan Heath, Decisive: How to make better decisions (London: Random House, 2013) p 14.  This would be great book to put on your Christmas list!

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