Get Your Story Straight By Mark L. Vincent
Institutional Memory and How to Get your Story Straight
Institutional memory and story are the subject of this blog post.
Just a few years in a leadership role pushes a leader into multiple moments when someone says, “I don’t subscribe to our organizational values the way they’re expressed.” Or, they say “I wasn’t here when we wrote our mission statement.” Or, they point to a centerpiece of the program or services being offered and pronounce them irrelevant. These things tend to be said in critical moments when a major initiative is about to start, or in front of a key donor, or shortly after a promotion a new role. Sometimes that voice is the newly hired CEO at their first board meeting!
The lack of self-awareness on such a person’s part is palpable and must be addressed. It also shows a profound loss of institutional memory, demonstrating an organization that is adrift.
You may need to stop what else you are doing and give this some serious reflection time if you want it to be useful.
A slow and repeated reading of the prophet Micah (3:3-5) may be helpful in addressing problems with institutional memory.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
English Standard Version (ESV)
Please note the underlined phrase at the end of the text.
A number of these righteous acts are directly referred to:
- Bringing a people up out of Egypt
- Redeeming those same people from a house of slavery, toward an implied new home
- Raising up Moses, Aaron and Miriam
- Using Balaam to thwart the intention of a king to destroy these people as they journeyed through the wilderness to their new home
- What happened between Shittim to Gilgal (referring to the events surrounding the crossing of the Jordan River as these people left the wilderness and entered what became their new home)
Stories about God’s righteous acts were written into the intended religious life of the Hebrew people. Their festivals commemorated them. They acted them out annually, as they gleaned their fields, lived in tents, lit lamps and ate unleavened bread. The songs they sang in worship services recounted God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm on their behalf. They were to tell each other these stories repeatedly, especially to their children. They set up monuments across the Palestinian landscape to assist the retelling.
And yet the stories were not known. They were not recalled as the people faced their current reality and coming future. The false and underlying story God’s people were telling themselves was now one of complaint rather than gratitude. This false narrative became a retelling of belief that God was not responding, and therefore complaint against God was warranted.
So, God invites his people to make their complaint in front of all creation. Let the mountains and hills gather and bear witness! Let them tell their false story in light of the real story of purpose and provision.
It was time to get the story straight!
This text from Micah ties to twenty-first-century organizations, especially if we are set up to do Great Commission and Great Commandment work. How is it that organizations birthed out of and steeped in generosity and mission lose touch with their story and values? It isn’t for lack of trying.
We have testimonials, publications, and annual reports. We have published mission statements and organizational values that everyone can read on the website. And yet, behind the doors of staff and board meetings, these statements of organizational drift and institutional memory loss come. When they do, they show:
- loss of missional direction
- that we are unmoored from our values, and may actively be pursuing contradictory ones
- that future persons we serve or who do the serving will be unable to tie their story to the foundational narrative of a faithful God
After all these years I’m aware of just two remedies.
Guard my own heart and voice.
If I am unmoored from God’s story and its values; if I cannot demonstrate that my decisions and my communication about them are anchored in the mission and values, then how I can expect it of anyone else. I need to start with an assumption that the process is constantly crumbling rather than it is actually fixed!
Freshen the formula. And then freshen the formula again.
There is a way that your organization put its processes together. Efficiency demands that they are repeatable and effective. Once set, however, they become unconscious and rote. When stories of God’s mission and values are only unconsciously lived and seldom expressed, a vacuum is created. Other narratives rush to fill the space. By retooling once we start to get comfortable, we are forced to articulate the WHY once again And when we do we usually find even more effective ways of living into the mission. A side benefit to keeping the story alive and at the center
Maybe there is a way you have succeeded in keeping mission, vision and values at the center of your decision making, follow through and reporting. Maybe you are bearing witness to God’s faithfulness in front of all creation, rather than complaint.
I’d love to hear from you and learn how you’ve done it.
Mark L. Vincent Ph.D, CCNL is the former CEO of Design Group International, an organizational development company he co-founded in 2001 to help organizations and their leaders transform for a vibrant future.
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