By Eddie Pipkin

December 4, 2017

This week I am sharing some great links from the non-ministry world on insights to strategic creativity and innovation.  One of the things I really enjoy doing with this blog is identifying lessons from the “regular” world that can help us rethink our moribund ministry mindset.  Because of the unique work environment of ministry, it is easy to find ourselves making excuses for pedestrian approaches to season after season of worship, spiritual growth, and outreach.

The three linked articles I am featuring today offer counter-intuitive approaches to keeping our strategies fresh.  They include rediscovering the true nature of innovation, intentionally pursuing strategic tension, and inviting critics into our process for developing ideas.

In a Financial Times article, “Most Innovations Are Merely Novelties,” writer Helen Barrett argues that we have created an idea of innovation that elevates even the most basic changes to magically transformational status and leans to a restrictive degree on the heroic image of the solitary genius:

“I am innovating!” a manager says when they do something different, or slightly different, or pile more work on to staff. I have heard “innovating” used to describe everything from opening an Instagram account to bolting routine tasks onto the jobs of skilled workers. Change for change’s sake and cutting resources are dressed up as innovation. Worse, we have bought into the myth of the “innovator,” the lone hero whose ingenuity and foresight propels the rest of us to a dazzling future. The obvious example is the late Steve Jobs, Apple founder and chief executive, widely assumed to have invented the iPhone.

He didn’t, she observes, pointing out the more than 900 people listed on the iPhone patent, but he was a great leader in terms of fostering an environment which welcomed new ideas and celebrated unlikely connections and maverick approaches.

From Harvard Business Review, Carston Lund Peterson and Thomas Ritter, in the article, Great Corporate Strategies Thrive on the Right Amount of Tension,” note how innovative teams are driven to great ideas by a little healthy discomfort.  The two academics promote the value of “strategic dissonance” within organizations.  Also referred to as “strategic stress,” this approach relies on the Goldilocksian premise that a certain amount of tension on a project leads to increased performance, but too much stress negates any potential benefit.  The stress in this case is in reference to the gap between our organizational expectations and the work actually required to bring our plans to fruition:

Too much stress to your strategy can be detrimental; but a sufficient amount of strategic stress ensures that your organization moves forward efficiently, and keeps you alert and responsive to emerging developments. Just like a diamond is the valuable outcome of constant pressure from multiple sides, strategic success results from balanced pressure on your strategy.

Too little gap between the vision and its execution, they argue, and you get “strategic boredom” (which can lead to the dreaded “strategic complacency”).  Too much and you get “strategic burnout”:

When strategy execution moves too far away from the initial strategy, the link between the plan and reality is broken, resources are wasted, and the organization lacks guidance. This scenario is characterized by many divergent projects, fragmented activities that have little in common with the initial strategic plan, and projects that do not fit together. The outcomes of such anarchy are random and, as such, unpredictable. Such organizations experience strategic burnout.

Substitute the word, churches, for the generic, organizations, and you will find yourself nodding in recognition.  We have all seen ministries overwhelmed by the wrong kinds of stress, and we’ve been first-hand observers of the damage that can be done to good people who are caught up in this process.  But get the balance right, and people (and the ministries they lead) are challenged just enough to benefit from being in the “strategic sweet spot.”  (By the way, if you want to geek out a little on stress performance theory, learn more about the Yerkes-Dodson Law here.)

So much of our success in innovation stems from building the right team, then giving that team the tools to fearlessly collaborate.  When we set out to build collaborative teams, we often take the approach of assembling a gifted “skills” team (people who are known for their aptitude in performing particular tasks), but we generally draw from a pool of people who share the same mindset or perspective that we do, focusing on a diversity of skills rather than on a diversity of perspectives.  But useful creative tension can also spring from differing philosophical approaches to problem solving.  I unexpectedly came across an article about Disney Pixar’s newest animated film, Coco, which revealed how the script was strengthened by embracing critics of Pixar’s approach to the original idea.

The folks at Disney received a considerable amount of social media flak for an ill-conceived notion to trademark the phrase Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Latin American celebration at the heart of the Coco story.  As recounted in Michael Cavna’s Washington Post article, however, this misstep led to a creative recalculation that had beneficial results:

The incident, though, led to a realization. “We needed to make sure that even though we were reaching out to folks, we needed to make this movie differently than any other movie we’d made,” says Katz, who has been with the studio since its first feature film, 1995’s Toy Story. “We needed to maybe not keep our cards so close to our chest.”  To course-correct for such blind spots, Pixar hired three key consultants: Marcela Davison Aviles, longtime president of the Mexican Heritage Corp. in nearby San Jose; playwright Octavio Solis; and Alcaraz himself [the foremost critic of the movie studio when this incident became public].

The new animated film has gone on to rave reviews and box office success.  Imagine how our ministry vision might be empowered if we actively engaged more people who, on first look, might be seen as critics rather than unabashed supporters.  They might have insights that could give us new direction.  The concept of multi-generational ministry leadership is one way that this idea can be lived out in local churches.  For instance, Children’s Ministry leadership groups in most churches are composed of parents of the age groups being served.  Imagine if we intentionally sought to include some single adults in the mix?  Likewise, if we intentionally recruited a retired, older person to be part of the youth advisory council?

If we recognize the role of innovation for keeping our ministries vital and healthy, we must recognize the need to be intentional about leading our teams in ways that promote fresh thinking.  What have your personal experiences been as you have served in various ministry capacities?  Have you been a part of organizations that actively empowered innovative collaboration?  Have you served in places that have done everything possible to stymie innovation?  What is one thing your ministry could do to take a more innovative approach?  Share your stories and ideas here in our comments section.