True Innovation

 Zosia Ericksson - Arrow Executive 1 (2013)

A little boy’s lunch becomes more than enough to feed five thousand hungry adults. The best wine at a wedding is poured from jars which moments before were filled with water. An entire nation survives in the desert for forty years by eating food that falls from the sky, every day. A battle is fought and a city is destroyed without the use of a single weapon. The entire world appears in an instant when a word is spoken. From the very beginning, God has been in the business of innovation. Throughout history, He has been right beside the leaders He has appointed, whispering strategy and prompting action, inspiring solutions to impossible problems, and going before them as they navigate uncharted territory. Even though Solomon was born too early for Google, Esther couldn’t leverage social media and Joshua didn't have a GPS, with God by their side, each of them were more than able to fulfill their leadership assignments with courage, creativity and innovation.

Today we have the capacity for greater global influence than any other generation before us, and through the screens in our pockets we have access to more information than existed in the entire world a century ago. But while information and influence have grown exponentially in our lifetime, we can’t yet type in the model number of our church or organisation, download the manual and scroll to the troubleshooting chapter when things begin to come unstuck. When we face problems in our leadership, how often do we think, “if only I had more people on my team, more money in the budget, and more time to complete the task”? If we work in a church or a not-for-profit organisation, this is likely to be a daily experience – yet we need only to look at some of the greatest innovators throughout history to see that it is often out of a situation of lack that some of the most brilliant ideas have been born. It seems that in many situations, the less we have to work with, the less we have to lose, and so in some way, the bigger risks we are willing to take. The most treasured lessons of my leadership journey so far have been where God has given me the courage to meet Him in the realm of the impossible – whether in discovering how easy it was to raise our previous year’s entire fundraising budget in just ten days when a new opportunity came up, or appointing close to 100 new staff in two weeks when a timeline depended on it – God showed me that in Him, taking risks and dreaming big laid the foundation of innovative leadership.

If we had immeasurable money, resources and time available, we wouldn’t need to innovate – yet all over the world there are organisations, government departments and businesses that have learnt the hard way that all of the money, time, and personnel available will not solve a problem without the leadership and creativity to know what needs to be done. Just as necessity is the mother of invention, when we transform the way we view our limitations, we can allow them to become the birthplace of innovation. Yet often people confuse innovation with incremental improvements, like updating our organisation’s logo and branding, moving the meeting times of our church, or changing the titles and role descriptions of our executive team. While these changes may make something 10% better, and are necessary to pursue progress, such improvement is not in essence creative, and is simply the fruit of good stewardship and hard work. The capacity for true innovation comes when we find out what God is up to and join Him there. This could look like creating a whole new genre, language or system of operating, solving a problem from a completely different angle, or developing a product or initiative that’s never seen before.  In this, we move into the realm of leading exponentially, where our organisation or ministry grows, fulfills its mission or increases its impact by 1000%. Here we are not merely leading out of our own capacity, or even the dynamic synergy of a team of Gen Y creatives – instead, we have access to the Mind who created all things, the first Innovator, and the One who already has the solution to every problem.

As much as we would like to believe that when we lead with God by our side we will always get it right first time, the truth is that innovation keeps company with leaders who have the courage to embrace failure and who choose to learn from it. Steve Jobs joined the dots about the significance of failure throughout his life in his commencement address to Stanford University’s class of 2005:  “I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Jobs could well have been paraphrasing Hebrews 12:11, which assures us that painful experiences, often brought about by failure, can be the most important lessons we will learn. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” It’s hard to believe anything good will come out of a situation where we’ve failed, but if we commit this verse to heart, we won’t expect anything to happen in an instant, and we also won’t be surprised when we see that the fruit when it finally comes is not just a bucketful but an entire harvest instead.

In a culture where the pursuit of perfection and “living the dream” underpins our nation’s psyche, and “she’ll be right” is still said on both building sites and in board rooms every day, it is no surprise that Australians are uncomfortable when it comes to talking about failure. Over the last few years, Australia has been described as being in the clutches of an “innovation drought”[1]. As angel investors shy away from the Australian start-up scene, and risk-averse business leaders are criticised for missing opportunities [2], many believe there is an urgent need to create a new Australian culture where it’s “okay to fail” [3]. It is perhaps not surprising then that across the other side of the world in Silicon Valley, the unofficial mantra of “fail early, fail often, fail forward” is why many believe that it has outperformed any other place on the planet as the hothouse of innovation over the last few decades [4]. When we can get over our fear of what others think of us, we instantly become more comfortable with the possibility of failure. And when we add the courage to believe that God is more than able to use our failures and mistakes for good, our organisations will flourish through the creativity and innovation that come from our leadership.

Embracing risk, leading with courage and growing through failure are all themes on which the Bible has much to say, but how often do we see the church leading the world in the ways of innovation and creativity? When we look at the forms and expressions of the church in Australia under the lens of innovation, are we experiencing any more success than the corporates and the entrepreneurs? As a nation that has continually wrestled with the role of the church within our society, what have we learnt from this, and how are we now positioned to take on the new opportunities of this generation? These are complex questions, but one thing I notice as I scroll through the music in my playlist and look at the podcasts I’ve recently downloaded, is that everything that I’m consuming at the moment was produced overseas. Australia has grown some great leaders and influential church movements over the last few decades, but as we look to the future, are we intentionally developing a culture within the Australian church that celebrates leadership and encourages big, impossible dreams? Have we invested in the leaders of today to enable them to move from mediocre to outstanding, or are we content to settle for good enough? Is our laid-back, egalitarian approach leaving a void of leaders who are brave enough to stand out and stand up in a hostile world? If all the things we love about our Aussie lifestyle are in fact preventing our poppies from growing tall, perhaps it is time to sow the seeds for a new generation of leaders who will be known by their courage to transform lack, failure and weakness into the abundant future that God has prepared for His church.

If we are ready to embrace creative, abundant, and courageous leadership, perhaps it goes without saying that there is little space for pride or ego. Nor is there room for holding on too tightly to dreams, yet sometimes we are slow to remember that dying to ourselves is what we signed up for in being a Jesus-follower. When I find myself wrestling with God about a vision or a project that I have allowed to consume me, I am often reminded of Jesus’ words in John 12, that  “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain”. So many times when I have come to the end of myself in this struggle, and finally handed it all back to God, I discover that He is building something so much bigger than anything I could have even comprehended. Had I held onto my own vision, I might have prevented something incredible from being created.

When we let go of both our strengths and our limitations and instead choose to join God where He is already at work, we operate from a place of true innovation. We can confidently take up our role as co-creators with Him, with the promise of Ephesians 3 that the results of our leadership will be “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine”.

[1] (May 29th 2015)

[2] (May 24th 2015)

[3] (May 22nd 2015)

[4] Diamandis, P & Kotler, S, 2015, Bold: How to go Big, Achieve Success and Impact the World, Simon & Schuster, New York