The Sick, Dead, and Merely Good

The Sick, Dead, and Merely Good by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Laurel Fan. Available at

I was in a meeting last week, listening to a report of all the wonderful things that organization has done in the past year. It is a non-profit, service organization so part of its mission is to impact people’s lives. In truth, the organization has excelled in fulfilling its mission and is truly making an impact where it matters most. To facilitate this success, the organization has invested in developing new programs and they have expanded its staff where appropriate. But how does the organization know when to stop one program or another? How do they know when to say, “Program X no longer serves the mission and we have to bring it to an end.”

As time passes, it is a normal process for organizations and individuals to expand their “inventory.” As organizations experience success they add products, services, and programs. Along with these, they add people and assets. The same is true of individuals. As people age, we develop interests, meet people, get involved in activities, and accumulate “stuff.” At some point, though, it is critical for the long-term success of the organization (or effectiveness of the individual) to eliminate parts of the “inventory.”

I am making an educated guess, but I suspect that Apple, Inc., currently the world’s largest company by market capitalization, has eliminated far more products from its offerings over the years than it currently sells. If it had not gone through a continuous culling process, it would be encumbered by old, out-of-date products that no longer contribute to its mission. It would probably not even exist as a company. (See Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson for a detailed account of Jobs’ process of culling upon his return to the company.)

The same is true of individuals. We also must go through a process of evaluating and eliminating possessions, responsibilities, work, and even relationships, attitudes, and beliefs. There are many wonderful parts of our lives that should remain and we should develop. But there are also many parts that should be eliminated.

How, though, do we go about this process? In this short article I can’t possibly deal with all the nuances of assessing and eliminating elements of your organization or your personal life. That requires one-on-one conversation. (And I welcome that! Just drop me a note.) However, I offer here a helpful metaphor to get you thinking about this process.

Dr. Henry Cloud, in his book Necessary Endings (HarperCollins, 2011), said there are three types of things that need to be eliminated in your organization and in your life. To help understand these, he suggested the metaphor of pruning. Pruning involves eliminating

  • healthy parts of the plant that are not the best,
  • sick branches that will not get better, and
  • dead branches that get in the way of new growth.

Applied to your organization and your life, this metaphor encourages you to ask:

  • What are we doing that is actually quite good, but it isn’t the best? What activities do not contribute in an optimal way to the mission?
  • What are the “lost causes” that we might feel emotionally or historically attached to, but really are getting in the way, or perhaps even “infecting” other parts or the organization (or my life)?
  • What is literally “dead weight” that slows us (or me) down? What baggage do we have that is tied to something that ended a long time ago?

These are all very challenging questions. The answers to these questions, assuming they are honest answers, will probably lead to very difficult discussions, and even harder decisions. The risk that comes from not following through on these decisions is very high, but the rewards are potentially very great.

I am currently looking at some of the “sick, dead, and merely good” in my own life. I’ll be honest and say that it is scary and I am reluctant to act. However, I know that follow through will yield amazing results as God is able to fill in the gaps created by the pruning.

3 thoughts on “The Sick, Dead, and Merely Good

  1. You are correct … These ARE tough questions to answer honestly, mainly because we don’t always feel permission to cut the healthy (but not best) branches from our lives. I involved my two oldest children in EVERYTHING available to them and those activities really burned us out. With my youngest two, I am showing much more restraint, opting instead for more time at home as a family. They are really happy with being part of a family that spends time as a complete unit, but it took me two kids to LEARN that. Often we don’t get a second run at doing things better, but it’s never too late to start!!

    • That’s a great example that many parents (all?) can relate to. When our two boys were just babies, some wise older parents cautioned us about getting involved in too many things. We focused on a few well-chosen, (developmental and/or talent-related) activities. I think it worked well for our family. Today, our two 16-year old boys do NOT exhibit the classic “my parents are embarrassing and I wouldn’t be caught dead with them” attitude. They still cherish regular and frequent family time. This is a great reminder of the results of getting rid of the merely good.

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