Saturday, 27 February 2016

Church Strategy - the Booker Lesson

Talk of the Church of England's "strategies' abounds. The idea that being " strategic" is good - that what is needed is strong leadership and a long-term strategy.

Ah me, it all reminds me of the fiasco that was the Booker "Heartland" project. Booker was an odd rag-bag of companies, with a profitable and efficient - but boring and unfashionable - chain of Cash and Carry Wholesale outlets. In a declining market, their Chief Executive - a man called Charles Bowen - decided that the correct approach was to build a centralised supply chain like the big supermarket chains all were. And at the middle of that project, to buy the company's biggest competitor.

Charles Bowen was showing massive strategic leadership. Nobody can doubt that - this was a bold and radical transformation of a long-established company.

There was just one or two minor problems. Charles Bowen wasn't very good. And both schemes were deeply, deeply flawed. The company nearly went insolvent. And when, after Stuart Rose and his brilliant side-kick, Charles "Two Brains" Wilson had rescued the company by a combination of pleading with the banks and decent, hard-headed, retailing - the bunch after them nearly ruined it again by putting together enormous, expensive, unworkable schemes.

I heard last year a suggestion that reminds me of the Heartland project. It came from Giles Fraser. I've no idea what it is that makes a left-wing cleric come up with a capitalist solution. But trimming down your local presence while building up regional "hubs" (oh, how managing directors love the word "hub") is exactly what Booker did.

It wasn't just the logistics economics that were wrong for Booker. It was also softer stuff - appearances. Centralising the supply chain led to much less stock in the local branches. This was good for retailers (for whom shop rents have historically been expensive) and useless for a wholesaler (whose outlets are themselves on industrial estates). But because stock levels in the branches were - deliberately - low, customers assumed the chain was going out of business. Confidence was low.

Apply that to Giles Fraser's view on churches and what would you see? Local worshippers would not travel to St Giles-in-the-Ivory-Tower's. And local occasional worshippers would just assume the Church was shutting down.

I'm not saying strategy is a bad thing. It's just a thing. But bad strategy is immensely worse than no strategy. And muddling through and making the best is a strategy in its own right. The cry that " something must be done" should always be subjected to immense scrutiny. Because something is so often worse than nothing. And if you're going to import ideas from business - pinch them from Stuart Rose, not from Charles Bowen.

1 comment :

  1. But Eileen, we all know the 'muddling through' thing is starting to break down around the country (especially in rural areas) as the generations who liked things 'just the way they are' are starting to realise that 'they' are getting older, fewer, and isolated from the world around them. And that unless they're prepared to countenance change (i.e: lay leadership, not every service a holy communion that requires a priest to 'do the special bit', maybe trying out different ways of worship designed to appeal to people younger than 65, not expecting someone else to pay for their buildings and ministers, etc), it'll all go belly up.'Renewal and Reform' is a actually quite a cuddly way of saying 'Adapt or die.' Or alternatively, Talitha Koum.


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