Is innovation becoming an unholy grail?
It’s tempting to believe the promise of innovation: Innovate and our future will be secured. Start something new and people will flock through the doors. Like the quest to find the holy grail that will lead to everlasting life, the current hunt for innovation seeks a grail that often is anything but holy.
While the drive for innovation might lead to an increase in new programs, new plans and new products, how long is it before they are replaced by other new programs, plans and products?
How often is our constant push for the new and cutting-edge coupled with mounting expectations, competition, burnout and fatigue?
It’s not that we don’t need innovation. But innovation for innovation’s sake is pointless -- and it can be destructive. We must ask ourselves what good innovation is and why it matters.
As someone who has worked with countless entrepreneurs, faith communities and business leaders, and currently helps congregations seeking to innovate, with tools such as our Mission Possible game and The Oikos Accelerator, I have come to recognize these important facets of the innovation process.
Ten aspects of faithful innovation
Good innovation begins with dissatisfaction. Innovation is about change. We have to long for things to be different. This longing isn’t just about style or preference; it is about solving a problem. This means we have recognized that something is fundamentally broken and believe things can be different.
It is fueled by empathy. Empathy is arguably a byproduct of love, and innovation requires loving people and places. It requires proximity -- we must be close enough to care. Empathy is at the heart of good innovation, as well as good design, because it puts people at the center. We have to think first about whom we want to serve and what they want or need, not what we want to do for them.
It isn’t just about great ideas. Innovators want to be the people who create the next shiny object, whether it’s a program, a space or a product. But we need to be careful not to get hung up on our ideas. Innovation isn’t about you and your idea or me and my idea. It should be about the impact we want to make; the idea is the strategy to achieve that impact.
It requires us to know what good is -- and what it looks like. It’s not enough to know what is broken; we have to be able to clearly describe the alternative. What, specifically, is the change we want to see in people, places, policy or systems? When we get clear about that, we’ll be clear about the impact we want to make.
It challenges us to think big. Innovation is not about incremental change, and it’s not about just tweaking things. It’s about having a big, audacious goal and believing -- truly believing -- that anything is possible. Thinking big is a David-and-Goliath mindset. It is Henry Ford aiming not for faster horses but beyond horses. It is Wilberforce aiming not for kinder slavery but beyond slavery. Far too often in the church, we think too small. We have limitations on what we imagine to be possible, and we think with our own survival in mind. But Scripture says that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). All things are possible. Good innovation forces us to act like it!
It requires a willingness to fail. Christianity has never been for the faint of heart. True innovation involves many failed attempts. Yet these failed attempts offer priceless opportunities for learning. This is also why measurement is a critical ingredient. It creates learning loops and helps guard against mission drift. If a measurement reveals that a given innovation is not creating the desired impact, we must change our approach and try again and again and again.
It demands a commitment to excellence. Innovation is undertaken because what is is not good enough. Faithful innovation demands that we think, build and act with a commitment to doing our best and greatest work. Put another way, if our goal is doing good, let’s make sure that we do good work. For far too long now, excellence has not been the hallmark of our work. Over 100 years ago, the church built the best schools and hospitals -- but now? When we need to deal with systemic racism, generational poverty, falling education rates, the church isn’t the place where most people look to bring about new solutions. Why not? Let’s change that!
It takes time. True innovation doesn’t happen overnight or lead to immediate success. In a world that thrives on 24/7, on-demand service, we have fooled ourselves into thinking we can control the timeline. But innovation requires understanding, listening and patience. We may rush to act, but God often asks us to wait, to prepare, to watch and to listen.
It demands collaboration. Innovation isn’t for lone rangers. Collaborators bring with them a diversity of ideas, skills, talent, experience and other networks. They often will see the problem -- as well as opportunities and resources -- from different angles. Resist the urge to see others as competition and to jockey for position.
It emerges from unlikely leaders. The freshest thinking often comes from the margins, not the mainstream. People who innovate often have what my friend Jonny Baker calls “the gift of not fitting in.” I worry that with the increased desire for innovation, we are seeing a “cool kids club” emerging. However, this is the Achilles’ heel of innovation. The more we seek to be seen and validated, the less radical, less innovative, less inclusive we become.
If we are to have faithful innovation, we will be looking for those who are humbly and diligently working for change, unseen, and will listen to their voices and elevate their leadership.
I believe we need innovation because what is is not enough. Innovation should help us do work that transforms the problems of our day and leads to the flourishing of people and communities. It should help us achieve our mission.
Let’s make sure we aren’t chasing an unholy grail. This is a holy endeavor that cannot wait.