Innovation is a nonnegotiable in today’s interconnected world, and knowing when it’s time to innovate is a crucial skill that we all must develop in order to lead well.
If there is anyone equipped to speak on this topic, it is Liam Savage. Liam serves as the Director of Innovation for OneHope, and he’s passionate about helping the global Church innovate in order to fulfill the Great Commission. He is also the author of Green Sky Innovation and the creator of the Innovation Launchpad, an online learning journey that raises up innovators for ministry.
Liam has a lot of knowledge to share when it comes to innovation, so I encourage you to reflect on and apply the following principles in your own life and ministry.
Innovation is an ever-trendy buzzword (that’s probably why you even clicked on this blog post in the first place!) “Innovate or die” as the mantra goes, or my personal favorite “the only constant in life is change.”
History bears this out. If you look at the first Fortune 500 list published in 1955, you won’t recognize most of the company names. Just 10% of companies are still on the list today from that original list of the nation’s most successful businesses. The other 90% were acquired, went bankrupt, or fell off the list as profitability declined. But 1955 wasn’t really all that long ago–less than one lifetime!
How does an organization go from elite success to relative obscurity in just a few years? They fail to innovate.
It’s easy to get comfortable and not think that change is needed. But at the pace our world is going, accelerated by new technologies, no one can afford to stay the same for long. Whether you’re a business, church, or nonprofit, the riskiest thing you can do is not innovate. To stay the same is to become obsolete.
When it comes to innovating in a ministry context, the great news is that we have an unchanging foundation. The Gospel’s truth never changes, no matter what the world around us looks like. But our methods of spreading the Gospel do need to change if we want Jesus’ message to be heard and understood.
Innovation requires significant investment, not just of time and money, but an investment of heart. Entering new spaces takes a toll emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually. Change is difficult. Leading our teams into the unknown takes courage and it might not make you popular.
But as leaders, it is our job to stay alert to the signs around us. Not being blinded by our successes, but always in humility looking for what might need to change to prepare our organizations for future effectiveness. If you are feeling any of the following, take it as a sign that it is time to innovate:
You find yourself working more and more alone rather than in partnership, and you’ve stopped inviting diverse voices to the table to give input on your work because it just feels like that slows things down.
It is certainly faster and easier to work alone than with others, but that is not God’s kingdom design. God has called each of us to His mission and we need each other. Innovation is most often not individual genius but the result of diversity focused on a shared goal. That’s why isolation is an innovation killer. In ministry, we have access to all the skills, resources, and people we need through our partnerships within the Global Church. Rather than cut yourself off from those–reach out and collaborate, for your sake and for theirs!
You have frustratingly slow processes or systems, which are creating silos and inhibiting internal collaboration making it feel like you spend all your time communicating about the work instead of moving it forward.
This is a critical signal that something is off within your organization. Many of the challenges we face are symptoms of deeper problem cycles that must be addressed. You won’t be able to innovate your work until you take a deeper look at the systems in place that are constraining your team. While it might feel counter-intuitive, you actually need to slow down even more and examine your internal systems first. Innovation is never like painting on a blank canvas–we are always adding to a picture that is already there.
You feel increasingly far from the front lines of ministry and it has been a long time since you heard directly from the people you are trying to reach. You are starting to realize that the world you face today is not the same one you started your ministry in.
If it always feels like your most impactful ministry stories are from the past, it is time to re-evaluate. We need to be close to those we are trying to serve and see life through their eyes. It is by spending time with people that we develop empathy and dismantle our assumptions. We cannot afford to depend on past knowledge or experience to prepare us for the future. Lean into your leadership skills and perspective as a valuable source of strength for your ministry, but always remember that you are very different from those you are trying to reach. Learn from them as well.
Once upon a time, people could not get enough of your ministry products and vision, but now you are struggling to compete in a crowded market and people just are not connecting with you the way they used to.
We cannot afford to get comfortable and coast on past success. We have the greatest story to tell in the Gospel message that the world so desperately needs. We should be striving every day to ensure we are communicating it powerfully. One downfall in ministry is always scaling up and trying to blast our message to as many people as possible. It is often better to connect meaningfully with smaller audiences than spread a generic message that few will act on. It might feel backwards, but give it a try. We can more easily turn friends into champions when we are clear about our ministry story and the journey we are inviting each individual to join.
Your ministry culture seems to be declining with people coming and going who no longer seem to match your DNA and more time dedicated to internal complaints than external impact. Your team is unhappy, but no one can seem to point to the root of the problem.
Peter Drucker famously said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. We can have the best plans, but we will never get anywhere without a healthy culture. Innovation thrives in a learning culture where people feel safe, can be open about their mistakes, and prioritize the mission over personal pride. Innovation suffers in a performance culture where people are fearful for their reputation and hesitant to take risks. If your team is unengaged or infighting, examine your ministry culture and what might be happening beneath the surface.
There is never enough time or capacity to carry out your ministry plans and people are consistently stressed. Critical projects are stalling out and there is no margin for existing demands, let alone innovation.
Sound familiar? If this is your reality, it might feel like the answer is to double down and push harder for results. But what you really need to do is care well for your people. They are the ones who will accelerate you if you can re-envision and empower them. Find ways for people to work together better. If weekly meetings are a waste of time–cancel them. If teams are directionless without a standing meeting–schedule them. Take time to listen to your people and unlock their innovative potential by stewarding them well. When your team steps up to own the vision and you make space for them to run, the momentum will be unstoppable.
Your team’s skills and knowledge feel out of date for the challenges you face, but you lack time or opportunities for people to learn what they need to stay current while remaining on top of their work.
You’ve gotten this far, so I’ll tell you a critical secret to innovation. Innovators are actually not experts–they are expert learners. As humans, we are always wrong about something, but we don’t always know it. So we need to be aggressive learners, seeking out new ways to look at old problems. This might mean opening up space for skill development, mentorship, higher education or even just taking time to examine our failures and what we can learn from them. There is no shame in failing, but it is a waste of time if we don’t learn from our mistakes. Encourage your team to be learners who try things that have never been done and create new insights from both successes and failures.