In The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber recognizes three primary roles in any successful business: the entrepreneur, the manager, and the technician. He describes these roles but is more concerned that small businesses fulfill all three and find success by the interactions of them. He attributes the failure of most small businesses to the lack of understanding the necessity of these roles and the often absence of one or more of them.
We often hear Christian teachers extol the merits of the material world by referencing God’s repeated utterance, recorded in Genesis 1, that each stage of creation was good (six times) and, finally complete, very good. But Genesis 2:18 reports that in the midst of the process of creation (related to Genesis 1:27 where God created humankind in His own image, male and female), there was one thing “not good”—that Adam was alone.
I have written previously that Adam’s prosperity—both materially and spiritually—hinged on the division of labor. On the material side, we easily recognize how the market (the realm of exchanges) optimizes labor to produce by a community of workers far more than individuals could produce all working in isolation to meet their material needs. Henry Ford is credited with bringing modern production to a whole new level and in developed economies we see worker productivity continue to rise with ever more diversified vocational specialization and the introduction of new and improved technologies. Those technologies are products of the division of labor, dreamt up and created by theorists, engineers, and production workers, and delivered to consumers by marketeers, transportation specialists, and storekeepers.
In small enterprises, the dearth of diverse role players can be glaring. To begin, tackling the analyses of the purpose of the business or agency, the role requirements of operation, and, finally, “who is in the room?” is helpful. It is not good for our organizations if gaps exist in the structures needed to succeed, like cogs missing from a gear. It is worse (or will become so) if we do not recognize and fix the missing cogs.
The first step, understanding purpose, is to consider what Jim Collins calls our hedgehog in his seminal book, Good to Great. Collins (citing Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, 1993) states: “Hedgehogs … simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.”
My wife works for Special Olympics—Georgia (SOGA). The national organization has their mission statement on their website: “The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.” SOGA has three major events a year—Summer Games, Fall Games, and Winter Games—plus a number of smaller events. The major events can draw upward of three thousand athletes and their families. All the work of SOGA’s staff of more than twenty people is focused year round on making sure those events take place and run smoothly.
Defining purpose requires narrow focus. What is it you want your business or agency to be? While some think the process of writing a business plan is passé, even if one is not written down, it is wise to think through all the questions a business plan forces you to address to avoid unforeseen pitfalls like under-capitalization, poor labor planning, bad location choice, etc. Having a clear mission statement helps determine the answer to all those questions.
The next analysis is to sort out the organizational roles to execute a small business or not-for-profit agency well. This is where Gerber’s assessment of the three primary roles holds up to scrutiny. While I will diverge somewhat from Gerber’s text, I take the three roles seriously in reflecting on my own history of owning several small businesses and serving on multiple not-for-profit boards.
To start a new enterprise requires vision. That seems easy enough and is typically the product of the entrepreneur casting vision. The entrepreneur may or may not be able to clearly articulate the mission succinctly but s/he is the one who steps up and says, “Hey! We could do something in this space!” The mission statement may be a collaborative articulation between interested partners or the singular entrepreneur but in any case it should be simple and clear. In 1993, my wife and I opened a bicycle shop with the express vision “to provide the best bicycles, bicycle-related equipment, and bicycle service available to the community.” That ultimately resulted in introducing recumbent bicycles to our market and overwhelming success, all in a small rural town of 18,000 in West Central Indiana.
Look around. Who is the visionary in your midst? As said, it may be a collective voice but, as Proverbs 29:18 implies, “where there is no vision, the people are disoriented,” and will accomplish little more than expending energy. Start with a clear purpose, and listen carefully to the visionary as they survey the world in front of them and guide the operation to meet needs, both internal and external, effectively.
Gerber’s second role (though these are not necessarily hierarchical so much as complementary) is the manager. My wife is an accountant. She likes the routines of repetitive processes. She brings order out of chaos with numbers and records and filing systems. Frankly, that kind of work drives me to distraction. Her skill sets and interests were almost perfectly complementary to mine in our bicycle business. She placed orders and kept the books while I researched products and created marketing plans. While we shared the oversight of the business, she provided our accountant with the data necessary to keep an eye on our profitability, and so on. The manager handles the daily things—personnel records, scheduling and payroll, accounts payable and paying the bills, making sure the window cleaner comes every week, and so on.
Who is the most organized person in your enterprise? Sadly, too many start-ups, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, assume recordkeeping, in fact, keeping order in general, is easy. It is not. That is why there are professional accountants who offer a long list of services to make sure employees, vendors, and taxing agencies get paid on time. Organization is often tedious and time-consuming but without it inventories can grow unchecked and cash flow disappears, employees remain untrained and productivity is actually counterproductive, marketing and advertising opportunities are missed and customers or donors never hear of your offerings or the good you want to do in the community.
Finally, Gerber introduces the technician. This is where most small businesses begin: at the workbench. John may make the best cupcakes in the world but making good cupcakes and starting, owning, and running a retail store are two very different recipes. Sally may have grown up at her father’s side working on small engines in the family garage but transferring the knowledge she gained to a for-profit repair shop requires a new and different set of tools.
Technicians are the actual production arm of the enterprise. No business or not-for-profit agency can function without someone, even if it is a troupe of volunteers, handling the nitty-gritty work of getting goods and services out the door. It is easy to see that Gerber has captured a legitimate snapshot of how enterprises work. Lest we think his focus is entirely on the marketplace, think also of how a hospital works—with doctors, nurses, and attendants (technicians), clerks and administrators (managers), and a founding board (entrepreneurs). Churches, government agencies, universities, businesses—they all operate on the same basic model.
But the best organizations take hostage the “not good” of Genesis 2:18 by recognizing that to be most effective they must work in the most ecological way, collaborating between all three of the roles described above. Keith Sawyer explains, in his book Group Genius, that large, successful companies are developing collaborative strategies that surpass the performance of older models. In the past, it has been generally accepted that the best solution to an engineering problem is to get a bunch of engineers together to hash out possible solutions. Sawyer contends that some enterprises are finding much more creative solutions through interdisciplinary collaborations, bringing together accountants, engineers, marketers, managers, etc.
The first company I co-founded (with a high school friend shortly after college) created test equipment for computers. Part of the product was the software that would help our test boards interact with the computer under analysis. I was the business manager for that company while my partner was both entrepreneur and technician. Along the way, I learned that engineers are all geniuses. That may be a bit of an overstatement but I believe they can do far more than they sometimes think they can but sometimes they need a different perspective to challenge them.
On more than one occasion, as I thought about marketing our products, I would think of really cool things we could offer the end-user “if only” our products could do X, Y, or Z. Typically if I approached one of our engineers with the idea I would immediately be given all the reasons why it could not be done. But I understand enough about digital logic to know that if my suggestion was logical, it was likely doable. It might not prove profitable but it was at least doable. We could worry about a financial feasibility study only if we came to an affirmative conclusion in the technological feasibility first. In nearly every case (probably four or five times), within a matter of a week or two, the particular engineer came to me and would open with, “I was thinking about the question you had and if we were to …” They, at least in theory, had overcome what had been impossible to their previous way of thinking. An outside impetus jarred them into thinking in a new way but well within their capacity.
The problem these engineers had was that they had put on the blinders of their own profession. Over time, electrical engineers, like business operators, or surgeons, or accountants, find certain practices effective and manageable. But sometimes innovation must occur. One must die to the old self, in effect, and be transformed into a new self, to move from one way of thinking to having a different vision. This sounds suspiciously like the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2) especially if we embrace that God can accomplish anything in and through us (Matt. 19:26).
This is of particular importance to the Church in our day for the cause of Christ. Elton Trueblood was a twentieth century theologian and author (thirty three books!) who also served as chaplain at both Harvard and Stanford universities during his career. His book, The Company of the Committed, now more than fifty years old, saw the need in his day that remains with us to rethink how we are the church in reaching the world. He believed that ministry to God (worship) and the world (holistic evangelism, in both Word and deed) will be best served if we are open to innovative strategies, adaptable to our surrounding circumstances, and seeking many and diverse counselors (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6).
From the smallest not-for-profit, to Fortune 500 companies, to the mission of God (the largest enterprise in human history), it is best if we understand what it is we aim to accomplish (entrepreneurial), how to organize and oversee the enterprise (managerial), and then effectively activate workers (mechanical). We will accomplish far more if we can recognize the skill and personnel gaps within the organization and shore them up. And we will accomplish more still by interdisciplinary collaboration and encouraging everyone involved to develop and leverage their unique specialties (what economists call comparative advantage).
God designed creation such that it is good, in fact, it is best, when we work together in harmony as a reflection of the perfect, cooperative, creative, and productive Trinitarian God. It is best because our image-bearing, as the community of God’s people, will bear witness to the world to God’s glory and goodness. Then the world will be witness to “a wise and understanding people, near to God, just and righteous” (Deut. 4:6-8).
And perhaps, in taking a holy approach to and in execution of our earthly endeavors, we will discover the spiritual prosperity that Adam could only practice in league with one of his own kind, Eve, also made in the image of God. And that is indeed (“in deed”) very good.