Innovation’s Blind Spot

If Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret is that most innovations fail, innovation’s blind spot is the failure to see that protecting the past is as important as creating the future.


Recently, while discussing what makes for a successful serial innovator™ with a group of pastors and business leaders, I was struck again that when it comes to leadership and innovation, all the sex appeal is on creating the future. But all the peril comes from failing to protect the past.

Have you noticed that an inordinate amount of the truly dazzling innovation in ministry and business comes from those who are in a startup mode? With nothing to lose and only a future to create, they can risk it all – and reap great rewards for the innovations that stick.

Yet most of us are in anything but a startup mode. We not only have a future to create, we also have past gains to protect. The difference between innovating in a startup mode and innovating within an existing ministry or business environment is immense. Those who fail to recognize this innovate at great risk.

Years ago, I watched the management team at Nordstrom’s almost commit organizational suicide by their failure to understand this difference. Concerned by slumping sales, they decided to overhaul their stores in an attempt to become more hip and reach a younger crowd. Following the lead of a couple of fast growing new clothiers who had recently burst onto the retail scene, they made significant changes to their ambiance, inventory and marketing in order to draw the kind of people who were flocking to these new retail outlets. (Does that sound like a lot of churches?)

But here’s what they missed. The customers they already had didn’t want the changes. They shopped at Nordstrom’s because they liked the very things that turned off the younger and hipper crowd. And unlike the new start-up stores, Nordstrom’s had a huge infrastructure and overhead to support. Losing large numbers of current customers to chase potential customers put them in a near financial death spiral.

Instead of making such radical and wholesale changes within their existing stores, they should have targeted their unreached audience with new stores aimed directly at them while making consistent and subtle changes within their existing stores. This would have allowed them to preserve their past gains while still laying the foundation for a strong future.

The same applies to those of us who lead any ministry or business organization. When it comes to innovation and creating the future, there are three important things to keep in mind.

  1. Whenever possible, innovate at the edge of the organization – or even outside the existing structures. A classic example would be the church that adds a new more cutting edge service at a different time slot or location rather than trying to introduce these elements into a more traditional service.Fact is: over time, our best innovations will often be so successful that they swallow up the old. But the goal is to have past gains swept aside by the success of the new rather than tossed aside in anticipation of the new. The difference is critical in terms of organizational chaos and pain.
  2. Make sure you have both Champions of the Future AND Protectors of the Past. Both are critically important. But too often, one or the other of these is almost completely neglected. In entrepreneurial organizations, it’s protectors of the past who tend to be marginalized. In organizations with a history, it’s the champions of the future who often can’t get a hearing.Most of us have a natural bias toward one or the other. If your bias is innovation, you may need to identify someone within the organization who naturally wakes up worrying about the negative effects of any proposed changes. If your bias is for protecting the past, you’ll need to find a way to give someone in the organization the freedom or even the job of rocking the boat. That doesn’t mean you’ll do everything they suggest. It does mean they’ll have a place at the table and the opportunity to have their risky new ideas carefully considered rather than relegated to the nut pile.
  3. Remember, the start-up phase ends the moment we’ve gathered critical mass and some raving fans who love what we’ve created.It might only be a few months into the process, but once an innovation acquires critical mass and raving fans it has a past to protect.When we started a video worship venue called The Edge, it quickly grew to over a thousand each weekend. But with the speed of cultural change, it wasn’t long until what was once edgy no longer pushed the envelope to the same degree.

    Some of my team wanted to make wholesale changes to make sure The Edge stayed edgy. But doing so would have driven away six to seven hundred of those who loved it just the way it was. Our solution was a series of subtle changes to keep things moving along and the start-up of a new edgier edge called LAST CALL. It allowed us to continue to innovate without losing all we’d worked so hard to gain.

So here are some questions you might want to consider as you look to your future and the path of innovation.

What’s my personal bias, creating the future or protecting the past?
Do I have someone near me who sees the other side?

What’s my organization’s bias, creating the future or protecting the past?
Do we have champions of the future and the past?
Do they have any real power and influence or are they marginalized?

What’s our innovation environment?
Are we in a start-up phase with only a future to create?
Are we in a transitional phase with new gains we can’t take for granted?
Are we in an established phase with both huge gains to protect and a future we need to create?

So what do you think? How does this fit with your own experiences with joys and heartache of innovation?

This guest post by Pastor Larry Osborne was originally posted on his website, and appears here with the author’s permission.

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