23 March 2015

A Buddhist Missionary in a Catholic World

In chapter 2 of Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao explore Buddhism versus Catholicism: Choosing a Path. The title of the chapter emerges from a conversation in which Michael Dearing asked a question of a group discussing their differing philosophies of moving organizations forward in the process of "scaling up."  Dearing's provocative question distinguished between the ultimate goals of organizations as it relates to their desire to grow: seek Catholicism where replication of centrally-planned designs and practices is the highest priority; or desire to be more like Buddhism where the guiding force for the organization flows from a common "Why?" with the particulars of "How?" left to specific employees and contexts.

The authors of Scaling Up Excellence do a great job of balancing their observations of this bi-polar approach to organizations.  Simple answers with universal applicability are rarely available though there are organizational beliefs and practices so significant that they are, at least within that organization, universal.   Said another way, it is rarely an either an all-Catholic or all-Buddhist approach.  It is healthy to remember that this is not an either/or question. Instead, there are cycles in the life of organizations where moving on the spectrum one way or the other is most appropriate.  As you can imagine, this got me thinking about life as a CBF Field Personnel.

Some organization's more Catholic approach emerges from a genuine need to exert control and monitor activity more closely.  Organizational management often excels at implementing "how to" policies. Further, providing coaching, controls, and oversight of a group of bankers, the example Sutton and Rao mention, makes much more organizational sense than providing every bank employee carte blanche!  As organizations seek to put into place or modify existing controls, the core question they continue to bump up against is where on the continuum from Buddhism to Catholicism will help move them forward and avoid failure.  Shifting on the scale towards one model from the other is a source of intense stress.  Every leader who has made policy adjustments can testify to this.  Some still carry the bruises revealing that they tried!

From the Buddhist end of the spectrum comes the warnings to organizations that simply cloning what works in one location will not work in different contexts.  The challenge is for centralized management to trust that the "why" of the organization is compelling enough to allow the "how" to be implemented at the local level.

The authors used the example from Home Depot, when it tried to reproduce a "You can do it.  We can help." approach in the twelve Chinese stores they opened in 2006.  By 2012, all of the Home Depot stores were closed.  Do it yourself, a challenge almost every American is up for, simply did not work in China.  Towards the other end of the spectrum, Yum Brands, parent company of KFC and Pizza Hut, is an exemplar of the Buddhist approach. Sutton and Rao point out that you can buy, among other things, soy milk only in China.  Empowering flexible approaches in response to context is a hallmark of the Buddhist approach.

The lessons of the Buddhism versus Catholicism approach can also inform the tasks of church planters, the approach of parents to their teens, and the needs of adjusting to differing contexts by just about every cross-cultural worker . . . including missionaries.  Equipping and encouraging cross-cultural missionaries leans more towards a Buddhist approach and less towards Catholic imposition.  The challenge for a culturally monolithic organization, like most US-based mission-sending organizations are, is to resist the misplaced belief in an it-worked-here-so-it-will-work-there approach.  The creativity necessary to discover and fulfill what the mission of God looks like in Rome, GA  must grant that what is done in that context cannot be cloned and imposed on Rome, Italy.