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Seeing Things Whole

Shortly after I arrived at Augsburg, I was introduced to the “Seeing things whole” (STW) model of organizational dynamics.  Almost twelve years later, STW is based at Augsburg and we are finding ways to share the model with colleagues across our various networks.  I wrote the following piece back in 2007 and stand by its good insights that have shaped my leadership at Augsburg.  For more on STW, visit our website at www.augsburg.edu/seeingthingswhole.

“As part of our transition work between my first and second year at Augsburg, we have become engaged with the work of an organization called “Seeing Things Whole” (STW), which was founded at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, in partnership with the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.  Seeing Things Whole provides an organizational framework for planning and problem solving that is grounded in a compelling and evocative theology of institutions.

The groundwork for the program is found in an essay entitled Toward a Theology of Institutions (Greenleaf Center, 2003, by David Specht, with Richard Broholm).  The authors extend Robert Greenleaf’s call for a servant-leadership perspective on organizational life that could be relevant to any type of institution – secular or religious.  The results are engaging and practical, tangibly grounded in organizational life and clearly informed by theological perspective.  Here is the background…

There are five theological premises for those who would hold organizations in trust:

  • Institutions are part of God’s order
  • God loves institutions
  • Institutions are living systems
  • Institutions are called and gifted, they are fallen, and they are capable of being redeemed
  • Faithfulness in institutional life is predicated upon the recognition and management of multiple bottom lines

Within this theological framework, there are three dimensions of organizational life that are interdependent:

  • The identity dimension, primarily concerned with healing, wholeness and the well being of the gathered life of the organization. This dimension primarily involves those who work for an organization.  This dimension is preoccupied with how the organization structures the character and quality of its gathered life, how it creates an environment that reflects its core values, and how it draws members of its workforce toward their fullest potential.  If this dimension is healthy, the organization will be values-based; populated with workers who resonate with its values; illustrating organizational values through its private and public lives; and self-reflective about the links between values and work.
  • The purpose dimension, primarily focused outward with a compelling vision and the corollary critique that recognizes dissonance between the “is” and the “ought.” This dimension primarily involves those who interface with an organization from its external environment – customers, clients, suppliers, competitors, and the natural and human communities in some way affected by the organization. This dimension is preoccupied with the clarity of mission and vision, the processes by which goods and services are produced or offered, marketing, and service to the individuals and communities it engages.  If this dimension is healthy and faithful, the organization will have a mission that serves real needs in the world; accountability to the world for advancing its mission; and a commitment to service that empowers others and makes them less dependent on the organization.
  • The stewardship dimension, primarily focused on leadership that serves, empowers, facilitates and persuades. This dimension primarily involves management, owners and trustees.  This dimension is preoccupied with how the organization secures and uses its various resources (people, funds, etc.) in order to sustain its viability while balancing the needs of its stakeholders and the wider community.  If this dimension is healthy, the organization will make decisions and take action with confidence in the long-term sustainable future of all stakeholders; its governance will be inclusive; and structures and systems will evolve to sustain the capacity of the organization to use its unique gifts in service to the world.

 

Within and between these dimensions of organizational life, STW allows institutions to understand and practice their work with a perspective of wholeness and interrelatedness.  Organizational dilemmas, then, become opportunities for stakeholders of the organization to hold its needs in trust.  There are additional lenses within each of the dimensions (see the website for more information) that help organizations gain a deeper understanding of their critical issues and potential ways to respond.

Here at Augsburg, we have used the STW framework to think about the transition between the first year of my presidency full of promise and energy and the continuing work that we must do to sustain the mission-grounded energy and momentum even as we address pressing and sometimes contentious issues.  The gathered life of Augsburg, then, is held in trust as we focus on this transition.  Through the STW process, we focused attention through a specific lens – governance.  Our leading question was “How to hold our organization in trust, balancing contending interests that grow from mission, vision and core commitments?”  Our responses to that question ranged from provocative claims about power to assumptions about contending interests to issues of distrust and mistrust to strategies related to communication and participation.  We walked away from our conversation with a clearer understanding of our central issue and some concrete ways of responding.  Reflective practice, at its best!”