5 Ways you can embrace innovation

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Outcomes.

“I’ve tried a dozen times,” one CEO told me, as he struggled to increase the pace of innovation at his company. If you’re like him, shifting demographics and the Information Age foster a change-laden atmosphere, while your organization remains static.

Culture Matters

Most of our organizational adjustments are simply strategic. We see impact growing or diminishing and respond by adjusting strategies. But by contrast, innovations that would change whole ministry models run up against a major obstacle—organizational culture. As Peter Drucker put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

So, what is culture? Something happens when you ask a bunch of people to work together. We create unspoken social norms, and a shared language—a culture. It’s the unique norms that surround the “us” that social anthropologists study for a living, and we must assess that collective “way we do thing around here” in order to innovate.

Our cultural norms are formed at deep-seated, subconscious levels that can be hard to understand without an anthropologist in the room. So ask yourself: What are the silent norms at your ministry? Which norms limit innovation? In the next month, how much of your time will be given to strategic execution compared to time given to your organization’s culture?

Do you have an innovation culture?

Most ministries experiment in some way or another. But are they experimenting with new models or simply optimizing the old model of ministry? Here are questions to evaluate your organization’s innovation culture:

  1. Are people able to challenge the way things work? If they try and fail, is that acceptable or is it viewed as proof that the old way works better?
  2. Are you rethinking and regularly testing new funding and ministry models?
  3. When you implement change, do you modify structures to support those changes?
  4. Are people’s tasks aligned with new, clear innovation objectives?

Five Ways to Catalyze an Innovation Culture

Creating an innovative culture is a soft change that can’t be mandated from the top-down. In an innovative culture, change is implemented at the grassroots level. People regularly experiment and tinker with new models and ways of doing things. Here are five ways to create an environment ready for innovation:

    1. Be clear about your innovation objectives.

Is everyone in your organization clear about the specific new programs or ministry models you’re trying to introduce, and how you’ll go about it? Or are you missing an innovation strategy?

    1. Emphasize outcomes over ideas.

Don’t place people with ideas on pedestals. Value execution over ideas. Studies show that ideas don’t belong to any one of us anyway. Unfortunately at most organizations, people gain social recognition based on their ideas. the “my idea” culture leads to dangerous consequences:

      • People don’t feel there’s as much credit for implementing someone else’s idea, so they silently resist participation.
      • Execution takes a secondary or tertiary role to the idea. At such organizations there are hundreds of ideas that never go anywhere.
    1. Diversify your organization and leadership.

It’s next-to-impossible to innovate if your organization doesn’t reflect a wide variety of perspectives. If everyone looks the same, talks the same, and thinks the same, then expect ideas and practices to be the same. Consciously recruit and elevate people with widely different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.

    1. Create incentives and rewards for experimenting.

As a leader, sometimes your recognition is the most significant incentive. You can choose the stories that get retold. Look for stories of people experimenting and tell the story again and again so people know what they are to emulate. Publicly tell the tales of wonderful failures and sincerely praise the people who tried them.

    1. Make sure scorecards track innovation.

Every time you meet with the board, are they (kindly) pinning you to the wall to know about ministry innovations? Or are they only asking about growth surrounding your existing approach? Here are two great innovation objectives for your scorecard:

    • How many new approaches were prototyped and tested in the last year?
    • How many new approaches have we rolled out in the last three years?

These are also great metrics for you and for your direct reports.

You can create an innovation culture. Just be sure that you, and your team, are always asking “what’s next” and are willing to make the culture changes that entails.

Don’t miss Shari Goetsch’s workshop “Culture Matters: Driving Innovation, Growth & Impact” at this year’s CLA conference in Dallas.