Reframing for How: Ought-Is-Can-Will

by Jake Thomsen

Yesterday I shared the motivation that I discovered in the four-part gospel as I wrestled with why my work mattered to God. Today I touch on how that vision applies to the faith-driven entrepreneur, and I try to make it a bit more actionable.

Why does the four-part gospel matter for the faith-driven entrepreneur? Because the framework charges us to reflect the world as it should be, and business has the power to shape the world in meaningful ways. Tech startups in particular—marked by creativity, innovation, and scalability, and currently with an outsized influence on culture—can solve problems, grow quickly, and touch countless lives. Think of the biggest tech companies you know. How did their products, culture, monetization strategies, and other elements make the world more or less like it should be, especially as those companies scaled and touched millions of people? Founders who catch the four-part gospel vision have a humbling yet motivating awareness that their companies are effective tools for contributing to human flourishing in big and small ways.

The four-part gospel also gives creative license for how our companies embody our faith. We don’t have to sneak the name of Jesus into a supplier phone call, put a Bible verse on a product, or slip a tract into a Christmas bonus in hopes of pleasing God. If I treat my supplier with dignity because she’s made in the image of God, if my product meets a real need at a fair price, and if I create a work culture where people feel like they belong, I reflect the world as it should be. I resist the fallenness of the world, which could otherwise reduce stakeholder relationships to utilitarian transactions, encourage us to make products that earn a quick profit but lack excellence, or have my culture contribute to the epidemic of loneliness. The four-part gospel gives room for creativity by recognizing how our companies can help renew all things.

This discussion begins to highlight how the four-part gospel can translate into action. We can ask ourselves, “where do I have even a small influence to make the world into what it was meant to be?” This question may not immediately reveal specifics, but it provides a structure for discerning action. Mike Metzger, a mentor to entrepreneurs, reframes the four-part gospel into an actionable version called “ought-is-can-will”:

  1. How ought something to be?

  2. How is it now, likely short of human flourishing?

  3. How can it be, considering our influence and ability?

  4. How will it be if we commit to changing it?

We can use ought-is-can-will to break down almost every element of a company then chart an actionable course. For instance, the frame can apply to launching an entire company. I think of Blake Smith, an entrepreneur we’re privileged to partner with at Sovereign’s Capital. He started Cladwell to appeal to an ought that he saw in the fashion industry:

  • Clothes and fashion ought to help people express themselves and feel confident in their skin, as consumers love their global neighbors by buying the work of their hands.

  • Instead the fashion industry is built on convincing us that we need certain clothes and styles to be adequate; garments are often made in unjust work environments; and items go to waste in overflowing closets—“too many clothes and nothing to wear.”

  • Blake realized he can use his quant background, the capsule wardrobe movement, and our smart phone culture to create a SaaS app that ingests wardrobe data to help people find outfits already in their closets. Users donate lots of items, and they buy a few new ones from companies that treat workers with dignity. They receive daily outfit recommendations based on closets with fewer but better clothes, all while finding a style uniquely and enduringly theirs.

  • As Blake expands beyond his tens of thousands of users, more customers will reverse their stressful, comparison-based, and wasteful relationship with their closets. Fashion will serve customers rather than represent a promise of self-worth pushed further away with each new season.

Most people have a sense that something is deeply broken in the world, and they want to help make it right. One benefit of ought-is-can-will is that its inclusive language appeals to this shared human experience, equally at home in a sermon on human flourishing as in a scrum master’s charge to ship an update to improve a product. Using the framework in our companies can therefore give us an onramp to invite colleagues from all faith perspectives into the conversation with integrity. While reflecting the world as it should be honors God even when the language isn’t faith-based, Metzger observes that ought-is-can-will conversations often turn to the topic of faith. That’s because teams have found such resonance in the framework that they ask about its origins. Then, from the context of common ground and shared mission, entrepreneurs have winsomely shared that the structure reflects the core of the Christian story. That beats an awkward candy cane spiel any day.

The four-part gospel—with its vision for joining God’s work, and its guidance toward action—was the piece missing for me when I knew (in theory) that my work mattered to God. But even with a fuller perspective, I swing wildly between pride and fear when I forget two important points. First, I don’t accomplish the results. While we should work with excellence and with the goal in mind, in one of Jesus’s most striking promises (John 15), He assures us that we do nothing of value if we don’t abide in Him and let Him do the work that he sees fit.

Second, I earn nothing from God through my work. In The Burden is Light, Jon Tyson observes that Jesus didn’t live a perfect life, lead a successful ministry, and rise from the grave to then be told “this is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” Rather, the Father declared His pleasure at Jesus’s baptism, when Jesus’s only “accomplishment” had been intimacy with the Father. From this foundation of acceptance and relationship, Jesus accomplished His work. May we accomplish our own work as a continuation of His, with the same openhanded confidence that God will use our lives and our companies as He makes all things new.

Jake Thomsen is a Principal with Sovereign's Capital, a venture fund that invests in faith-driven entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Southeast Asia. 

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash