Creating an Environment for Innovation


Guest Post by Keith Wright

I was recently asked to speak on innovation in our lives, businesses, churches and organizations. Before I talk about innovation, it’s always important to remember that innovation can’t be its own focus–you don’t become innovative by focusing on it directly. If you just attract risk-takers and innovate for the sake of it you can innovate your organization right out of business! Innovation must be balanced with a focus on promoting best practices and building scale.

As we start thinking about innovation in that balanced context, there are several important truths to ground ourselves in. First, if we aren’t open to innovation and change, we ultimately aren’t open to what God may do through us. It’s hard for God to work from a static attitude–openness to innovation is important for giving God space.

Second, innovation is hard. It can be hard to find time and energy for it, and hard to fight resistance to it. But if you’re not getting resistance, you probably aren’t moving. It’s important to pay attention to resistance you get at some points, but you can’t worry about it constantly.

Third, change should be the result of what God’s asking us to do. From the little to the big, everything we do is a response to God’s call. I believe God can prompt thinking about how to improve a program or change a premise. In that respect, change is not just a response to failure (though that can be important) but a proactive change in the right direction based on what God is saying.

With that in mind, how can we create an innovative, creative atmosphere and still create clear direction? In my current job, my primary role is getting 3,000 staff in 26 countries and at least that many cultures moving in the same direction. While strategic direction should not change too often, how we navigate progress and find new ways to do things must be characterized by fresh thinking and innovation. On one hand I have access to an incredible array of perspectives and talent. On the other hand, my job is to lead them, not to make everyone happy.

The bottom line is that we need to create an environment where innovation is a natural outworking of all the various talents on your team, in whatever type of organization you are part of.

Innovation is essential to effectiveness and impact in the context of a rapidly changing world, but it’s not as hard as it may sound. It begins by creating a culture around some achievable behaviors and commitments. We need to find and create the parameters within which people have full freedom to develop solutions in the context in which they serve. We need to steward our teams in this area and provide guidance so that innovation is productive and successful.

We are all leaders and team members at some point in our lives and we all play an important part in helping facilitate the right environment. For leaders, here are a few key things to keep in mind for creating the space for innovation:

  • Create space to listen and to be challenged. We must invite ideas and challenges. This can be subtle, but do the people on your team really feeling invited to speak out? Do they feel that your door is open? This doesn’t mean we abdicate all our leadership, but we must create intentional space for this
  • Reward input from team members, even if you don’t agree with it. We need to reward the effort people make so they feel encouraged to continue to bring ideas.
  • Don’t abdicate decisions or ownership of the final direction taken. If you talk a lot about innovation but don’t take ownership of the outcome then people won’t participate. If something fails, take ownership. If something works, don’t take the credit. This will create loyal team members who are willing to take risks.

For team members, here are two things to remember:

  • Advise up. If you have an idea or see something that needs to be pointed out, it’s your responsibility to bring it up.
  • Lead down. This is important because we need to recognize you don’t own the final decision. We must recognize that those in leadership make the final decision and that it’s then our responsibility to execute their decision with a positive attitude and to the best of our ability.

If you aren’t able to effectively advise up and lead down within your organization, it’s probably time to consider a change.

Faith is confidence in what we can’t see and we need to be leaders who lead with faith. We cannot fear the unknown but we must create an environment where we lean into the future with anticipation and an open mind to what could be and where God will lead. It’s risky but essential.

Too often, in churches and non-profits in particular, we gravitate toward stagnation and playing it safe. Yet this is the type of work where the bottom line is people. If we don’t take risks for them, what will we take risks for? The work we do in our churches, community and the world is too important for anything less.

Photo Credit: Forbes Magazine




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