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Gordon Smith: Institutional Intelligence

Gordon T. Smith, Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017), 225 pages, ISBN 9780830844852.

With a cover made to look like an organizational chart (indeed, the author believes in hierarchy), and the catchy, contemporary title, a potential reader might assume the content is similar to the business leadership manuals that have been popular over the past thirty years. In fact, the reader wouldn’t be far off. The focus of the book is primarily focused on non-profit organizations and how to lead them. Institutions, Smith iterates repeatedly, matter and they are “essential to human flourishing.” For an organisation to be effective, members must have institutional intelligence: “the wisdom of working effectively within an organization with others … by understanding how institutions work, how they can be effective, and how all people in the organization can contribute to the whole system.” This book is relevant not only for church planters—just starting new institutions—but also for seasoned pastors and other non-profit leaders who want more synergy between the institution’s mission and its operations.

The book contains ten chapters, a conclusion, and three appendices. Chapter one introduces seven “distinctive” features of an effective organization. These features include mission clarity, appropriate governance, quality of personnel, a vibrant culture, financial resilience, appropriate ‘built space’, and strategic alliances. Indeed, these seven characteristics comprise the remaining chapters of the book.

Institutions matter.

Mission clarity is covered in chapters two and three. Essential to effective organizations are identity and purpose. Leaders at all levels should ask and be able to answer questions concerning the institution’s past and present. Smith asserts that each institution has a distinctive gift from God; it’s important for an organization to know what its gifting is. To be clear on mission, members must ask questions about calling and vocation, as well as who benefits from the organization’s existence and how to distinguish the organization from others in the same industry. Ultimately, the question is, “Is what we do effective?”

Good governance is another distinctive feature of an effective organization. In chapters three and four, Smith posits that institutions must ask themselves questions about decision-making and implementation. Effective organizations not only make good decisions, but they have the capacity to implement those decisions. Leaders should have a clear understanding of how to use power responsibly and to whom they are accountable. Smith specifies three “entities” of an effective organization: executive, board, and practitioners. Each entity needs to know what it is responsible to achieve. As a learning organization, effective institutions get the wisdom and knowledge they need to make good decisions and ensure they can carry them out.

Identity and purpose are essential to having an effective organization.

Employing the right people and creating a culture that is consistent with the organization’s mission are the subjects of chapters five and six, respectively. Not only must the right people be employed, they must also be trained and empowered to support the institution’s mission. Just as the people must fit the mission, so too, must the organization’s culture be consistent with its identity and purpose. Moreover, the culture must be able to change with the mission and purpose. And when it’s time for an employee to move on, effective organizations help those employees to transition. Smith states matter-of-factly that effective organizations care for their people and say thank you often.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 2019

About the Author: Michelle Vondey, Ph.D. (Regent University) and M.Div. (Church of God Theological Seminary), has more than twenty years’ experience working in non-profit organizations. Her interests are focused mainly on developing followers in their roles in organizations. She teaches courses in leadership, critical reasoning, and Christian discipleship. 2012 dissertation LinkedIn

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