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Real World Innovation: It’s a Lot Like Sausage

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Everyone loves innovation—as a concept. But in the real world, it’s a lot like sausage. The finished product tastes great, but most people would never order it if they saw how it was made.

I serve in a church that has been widely acclaimed as being innovative. But it has not been nearly as easy as it looks from a distance. We’ve often made a mess of things, paid more than our share of “dumb taxes” and have had a boatload of failures.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about innovation and creative leadership. Unfortunately, I had to learn most of it the hard way. Many of my initial assumptions were dead wrong, and much of what I was taught about change and innovation was idealistic gobbledygook. It sounded great. But it didn’t work.

I’ve since found that my experience was rather typical. Many leaders start out with the same faulty assumptions I had. And most have been taught the same well intentioned, but wrong-headed, myths about innovation. As a result, we often end up doing things that sabotage and derail innovation, all the while thinking we’re doing all the right things to foster and promote it.

Here’s a look at five of the biggest mistakes I made and what you and your team can do to avoid them. Each represents a widely held misconception about how innovation works in the real world of frontline ministry.

(1) Assuming great ideas lead to great innovations

One of the first things I had to learn was that successful innovation takes more than a great idea. Two other things must be present. The first is great implementation; mediocre ideas with great implementation will always have a greater chance of success than great ideas with mediocre implementation. But the second was something I never considered as particularly important. To successfully innovate we also needed a clearly articulated and widely agreed upon mission.

That’s because to be truly successful, an innovation needs to do more than simply change and improve things. It needs to change and improve the right things. Without a clearly defined and agreed upon mission, there is no way to know what those right things are.

Before I and the other leaders at North Coast Church took the time to clearly articulate our mission, we considered anything that drew a crowd to be successful. With no other filter by which to screen things, attendance became our only metric. If a new ministry or program met needs and increased attendance, we figured we had a successful innovation on our hands.

But many of the things we considered to be successful did little to advance the kingdom or fulfill the Great Commission. They were creative. They drew a crowd. But they also squandered time, money and energy that would have been better used to fulfill our mission.

A successful innovation doesn’t simply draw a large crowd or receive great press. It also has to advance the cause. Otherwise it’s a distraction, not an innovation. And it’s nearly impossible to know if something is genuinely advancing the cause if we haven’t taken the time to clearly articulate and agree upon what the cause is.

(2) Confusing novelty with innovation

Another lesson I had to learn was that novelty is not innovation. The two are easily confused.

This is especially true for those of us who are easily bored. We can change things for the sake of change and call it creativity. But if the truth be known, our pursuit of constant change is more the result of our restlessness and ADHD tendencies than anything else.

Constant change may keep the creatives in our midst pumped up and motivated. But it leaves many of our staff members and congregants with a bad case of organizational vertigo and whiplash.

I made this mistake in my early years at North Coast. Being young and idealistic, I considered anything new and novel, innovative. I wanted to institute every cutting edge idea I had or heard about. And I wanted to adopt it immediately.

But rather than taking us to new heights, all I did was confuse people. Our priorities and game plan were always in flux. We were like a restaurant with a constantly changing menu. It’s no wonder people didn’t bring their friends. They had no idea what we’d be serving from week to week.

I remember once adding an extended fellowship time to the middle of our worship service. This was not your typical meet and greet. It was 15-20 minutes long, nestled between the worship set and the sermon.

Attendance had grown to 150, and I wanted to maintain the level of fellowship and community that we’d experienced when we were smaller. So I read off some Bible verses and told our people to use the time to share, pray and minister to one another.

But they didn’t share, pray and minister to one another. They made a beeline for the coffee and doughnuts. Then they stood around and talked about the weather and how much they hated the new extended intermission in our worship service.

My idea was well intended. It was biblical (or so I thought). It was certainly novel and different. No one in our congregation had seen anything like it before. But it wasn’t innovative. It was just weird—and awkward.

The goal of innovation and change is not to constantly change or try something new. The goal is to advance the kingdom. Launching lots of new programs and pursuing idealistic ideas that nobody buys into is not innovative leadership. It’s failed leadership.

(3) Confusing risk with faith

Another common mistake among leaders is the tendency to confuse risk-taking with faith, and innovation with living on the ragged edge.

I’ve heard conference speakers tell a room full of pastors and leaders that if we don’t have some area of our life or ministry that will crash and burn if God doesn’t come to the rescue and do something miraculous, we aren’t living by faith.

That’s baloney.

God is not impressed with risk-taking.

He’s impressed with obedience.

Faith is not taking crazy risks. It’s trusting God enough to do what he says even when it’s risky or makes no sense. It’s going out on a limb that he specifically tells us to go out onto.

Abraham took Isaac to Mount Moriah, Noah built a boat in the middle of nowhere, and Moses audaciously told Pharaoh to let God’s people go because God had explicitly told them to do so. They didn’t do something crazy and expect God to bless it. God asked them to do something crazy, so they did it.

That’s faith.

Many of those who write and speak about motivation love to tell stories of people who took a great risk and lived to tell about it. They turn them into heroes. And some of us buy it. We begin to think that the secret to innovative success is to take great risks, even when God hasn’t asked us to do so.

I think of a pastor friend who told me he was pushing his church to take a huge and seemingly imprudent financial risk to get into a new facility. He’d heard a conference speaker tell a story about taking a similar risk. God had come through for him at the last minute. So my friend figured if he crawled out on the same limb as the speaker had, God would reward his “step of faith” and rescue him.

So he went for it.

He thought he was being a courageous and innovative leader; He thought he was pushing the envelope and leading his congregation into a great step of faith.

But he wasn’t.

He was unintentionally leading them into bankruptcy.

I think also of another pastor who called me after hearing me speak on sermon-based small groups. He was convinced his church should do the same thing. So he told me he had “burned the boats,” canceling every competing program in order to go all in on this new ministry model.

I asked him how it was going so far.

“Not too well,” he said. “People are pretty upset, and lots of them have left. But if I’m going to lead by faith, I have to step out and take the risk.”

Sadly, the next time I talked to him he was looking for another job.

Like many leaders, he had confused risk-taking with faith, and innovation with living on the ragged edge. But innovation is not about risk-taking. It’s about innovation. And faith is not about risk-taking. It’s about obedience.

(4) Seeking buy-in instead of permission

A fourth common mistake is seeking buy-in instead of permission.

Buy-in is vastly overrated. It’s also almost impossible to get on the front end of a genuine innovation or significant change.

To understand why, consider the so-called Adoption Curve, made famous by Everett Rodgers in his groundbreaking book, Diffusion of Innovations.

According to Rodgers, 50 percent of people won’t buy into or adopt an innovation or major change until it’s already succeeded—and they know who else is for it.

That makes buy-in on the front end rather hard to come by!

But fortunately, it’s rather easy to get permission, especially if you ask for it in the right way. I’ve found that most boards and congregations will let us try something long before they’ll sign off as fully supporting something that is brand new or untested.

For instance, when I first presented the idea of a video venue to our senior staff, they were convinced it would never work. Actually, they were adamantly against it. All they could imagine was an overflow room, which everyone knows is a punishment for being late. Worse, when they asked me for proof it would work, I couldn’t produce any. After all, it had never been done before.

Frankly, if I had sought buy-in from our staff or board (much less the congregation), I’d still be trying to convince people that video can work. But it was easy to get permission. It almost always is, because most people are happy to let us try something as long as they don’t have to support it or pay for it.

Frankly, there are very few true innovations that require broad buy-in to launch. Most can be launched at the fringe of your ministry with minimal support. Simply count the “yes” votes and start with those who like the idea. If it’s successful, everyone will jump aboard soon enough. If it’s not, you’ll be able to bail out or make any necessary midcourse corrections without losing all of your leadership chips.

(5) Failing to protect the past while creating the future

A fifth common mistake is trying to create the future without protecting the past. The only innovative leaders who can get away with ignoring the past are those who have no past to protect (startup ministries and church plants in their first year or two). Everyone else has a past to protect, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril.

This is a trap pastors and leaders in turnaround situations often fall into. It’s easy to see why. They arrive at a church that has declined or grown stale, so they rightfully turn their attention to the people the church is no longer reaching. But if they ignore the people who remain, it won’t be long until they lose them as well.

Consider the recent debacle at JC Penney. Concerned about their decreasing share of the marketplace, the board of directors hired a new CEO to come in and lead the company into the future. When he arrived, he made a ton of changes designed to reach new customers. But in the process he alienated almost all of the small remnant of customers the company still had. Sales tumbled. The stock crashed. He was fired.

The same thing happens in churches all the time.

That’s why I’m such a big proponent of innovating and making changes at the fringe whenever possible. It allows a leadership team to protect the past while creating the future.

In order to survive over the long haul, a church has to morph and change over time. But to do so in a healthy way, it has to keep one eye on the past and one eye on the future. Those who put both eyes on the future eventually lose the foundation they’re attempting to build on, while those who put both eyes on the past eventually miss out on the future.

At North Coast, one way we protect the past and create the future is by offering different worship styles in our venues. We don’t want to force people to choose between the past or the future. We want to offer both.

Obviously, sometimes that can’t be done. If the past is toxic, sin-filled or resistant to what God is up to, it has to be killed off. But most often, protecting the past is simply a matter of allowing yesterday’s methods and preferences to live out their lifespan and usefulness. It’s a way to honor and acknowledge what God has used in the past without letting it define or kill off the future.

Frankly, this was a hard lesson for me to learn because I’m future oriented by nature. I used to idealistically think everyone else should be so as well. My motto was, “If you love Jesus, you’ll learn to love a subwoofer for the kingdom.”

I was wrong.

I ignored the wisdom of Jesus. He not only said, “New wine needs to go into new wine skins.” He also said, “No one who has tasted the old will want the new.”

Both statements should speak powerfully to our attempts at innovative leadership. When we create the future, we need to put it into new wineskins. But we protect the past by understanding that no one who has tasted the old will want the new. Instead of jamming it down their throats, we need to let them savor the old while we’re putting the new into the new wineskins.

Innovation is never easy. But it’s essential. Without it our ministries and churches will eventually die. Jesus will continue to build his church no matter what we do. But if we want to be a part of what he’s up to, instead of being relegated to the sidelines as a spectator, we must innovate and change.

But to do that, we must understand how genuine innovation works in the real world—and that’s often quite different than what many of us have assumed and been told over the years.