Thursday, March 05, 2009

What makes a place innovative?

Innovation isn't spread through pixy dust or mojo - oh how we wish it was. Wouldn't it be great if you could buy a can of innovation powder and spread it around your study or your office? Alas, innovation is a more complex brew that takes some dissecting.

Steve Knight is a member of our facebook innovation group and an amazing kingdom journalist/innovator. He shared with me a map that McKinsey created to show hot spots of innovation (more on that further down). And as I thought about this issue, I began to ask myself about the characteristics that make a place innovative.

Fast Company Magazine (one of my favorites) has what they call the Fast 50. These are the 50 most innovative companies. They just released the 2009 results and you will be fascinated. The five most innovative were: 1) Team Obama 2) Google 3) Hulu 4) Apple 5) Cisco Systems. They have identified those companies that are changing the rules and leading the pack. As I have watched this list, it seems to be based upon which companies are taking new ideas and turning them into strategic advantages within specific arenas. Google in search, Apple in music, Obama in fundraising/mobilization, etc.

McKinsey has created a map of the most innovative cities around the globe. They used two key criteria on their graph:
  • momentum: average growth of US patents
  • diversity: number of separate companies
This criteria for innovation focuses on the number of new ideas are created by companies. In essence they are saying that if you or your organization is creating new ideas and taking the time to own them, you are in a position to innovate.

They go on to break up the cities into these categories:
  • hot springs: small fast growing hubs (Brisbane)
  • dynamic oceans: large vibrant ecosystems (Taipei)
  • silent lakes: older slower-growing hubs (Tel Aviv)
  • shrinking pools: unable, so far, to expand beyond their start-up core (Indianapolis)
In another article, I found another interesting twist on innovation. Forbes shared that 7 of the top 10 innovative countries are in Europe. The article talked about how many times we view Europe as old and slow - the opposite of innovative. However, it talks about the key things that make Europe innovative. Many companies in these countries have long-standing innovation task forces. They have a high level of research and a value for quality. The article also talked about the number of patents in these countries that give their companies an innovative edge.

It really helps to see the companies, cities and countries that are innovative. It gives us ideas on how we as ministries and how we personally can create cultures of innovation. I encourage you to read some of the articles in this posting and study these examples. Look for things that you can incorporate.

But I also want to share some of the characteristics that they have not mentioned which I believe create an environment of innovation in ministry:

1. Trust: When trust is high, then organizations can move quickly, adopt new ideas and think strategically. When trust is low, the atmosphere is full of confusion, in-fighting and second guessing. A great book on this is "Speed of Trust"

2. Risk Tolerance: Every person and every organization has a tolerance for risk. Those organizations that know their risk tolerance and then allow ideas to develop with that level of risk as a guide can be innovative. If level of risk is an unknown, then organizations always find themselves with various opinions about whether an idea is worth pursuing but have no language to describe it.

3. Defined Standards: When a person or organization has defined standards for quality, missiology, strategy and so on, then innovation has a place to grow. When no standards exist, then ideas tend to fly out uncontrolled and can't get a foothold. But when there are parameters that help define direction and success then innovation has a place to develop.

4. Interdependence: When people find themselves in a place that fosters learning and collaboration, innovation will not be far behind. When it is ok to take time and learn new things and share them with others, then those ideas have a chance of finding practical purposes.

We could go on and on, but I will leave it with this question: Based on some of the input above, is your ministry environment innovative? If so . . . what have you created? If not . . . what are you going to do to begin creating a place where new ideas can thrive?


Mark Avery said...

great post-- this is really useful to both my business and my ministry. The very low risk tolerance of many mission entities may be largely due to the low margins for financial risk-- resources are already spread thinly in standardized routines, so risking more on unproven ideas doesn't fly well with the director or the foundations he would need to approach.

The trust factor is another key issue, as internally, trust is often based in the west on personal reputation and in Asia on the top down power of the leader (trust the leader, trust the ministry). Trust between ministries is often lacking though, as everyone is starved for resources and wants their own ministry org to grow in a competitive environment.

Good stuff! Keep it coming. I'll look forward to seeing how this develops.

Kurt Wilson said...

Great post addition to the references you cite, The Atlantic Monthly also had a great article on ‘The Geography of Innovation” a few months back, and I love how you tied the whole them back to missions. As I've thought about it, it seems that the 'risk tolerance' factor is especially important...the fear of failure and lure of success seem to be the most amazing 'carrot and stick' combination to keep people sticking to the tried and true and not innovating.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The "limited good" mentality in relation to human and financial resources is a huge blockage for innovation in ministry. You did a great job describing that challenge.

I think there is a huge fear of failure in ministry that hampers innovation. There is a feeling that if we fail, we have waisted the money of the donor.

The challenge is that innovation requires failure and in fact feeds off of it. Unless we feel that we have the obligation to invest human and financial resources in the innovation process there will always be a good reason not to do it.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...


I think I found the article you are refering to. Here is the link:

I am a firm believer that the issue of risk tolerance is a key factor for the inability of nonprofits to be creative. One of the great challenges is that any given nonprofit will have key decision makes with different levels of tolerance. And because it is not discussed, they will try to move forward each with their own threshold only to be egged on or pulled back by others.