Front-line innovation


Putting a flywheel on a bike to store lost energy? I ride my bike quite a bit, it’s the cheapest and fastest way I can get around town. This is a relatively simple solution for wasted energy of stopping for a red light.

Here’s what I know about innovation. It’s never come out of a big companies R&D department. Professional R&D departments are a waste of corporate dollars largely because there is a tie between desperation and innovation.

There are only 2 reliable sources of innovation, in my experience.

  1. Hungry entrepreneurs – Desperate for their next paycheck, backed against the wall, misunderstood and unappreciated, many of our best inventions came from these people.
  2. Front-line soft innovations – A core problem with companies who fail to create new ideas is that they don’t listen to the people doing the work. They might be friendly with them but they don’t truly listen to the solutions their front-line workers say they need every day.

What does that have to do with you? Everything. Our society is desperate for brand new freshly minted inventions. And those of us who manage people need to develop regular ways to listen to the front-line workers– elevating their ideas to the position where they can create the sof-innovation you need.


Mini-Helicopters are Coming to a Nightmare Near You

[see the video]

First thought? Wow,  that is so flipping cool!

Second thought? I’m going to have nightmares about them.

Third thought? Alfred Hitchcock.

Fourth thought? How much?

Fifth thought? They need cameras like this.

Church Leadership

What does your ministry have to do with Dropbox?

Did you catch that? Steve Jobs invited Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox, to his office to play Let’s Make a Deal. And Drew Houston walked away.

Why? In the written interview for Forbes and the video above you get clued into Houston’s reasoning.

  • He said we were a feature, not a product.” Apparently, Jobs was thinking that Dropbox would be a great feature… what is now iCloud. (Which is buggy and I’ve turned off, by the way.)
  • We are excited about the prospect of building a really great and independent company.

Those two statements have great meaning if you understand how the tech industry works. In the tech ecosystem there are whales and minnows and only a few medium-sized fish in the middle. The whales go around and gobble up anything that looks tasty. If you are a minnow your goal, largely, is to get swallowed by a whale. Virtually no company survives a full life cycle from minnow start-up to medium-sized company to big great, independent company. The whales have too much money and too many lawyers. (see Patent Troll)

While at first blush every tech start-up I’ve ever met will tell you that they are excited about their product line and would love to grow into a great company, the reality is that acquisition is probably their exit strategy. If you asked them, “Would you sell to Google?” Almost everyone will say yes because as they grow they realize a couple of things.

  • They are great entrepreneurs/inventors and not great managers of people.
  • They have a product and not a company. It might be their 4th product which hits and makes them a household name but they can’t see past the success of their first product.
  • They are starters and not sustainers. Their business model is short-sighted.
  • They want to cash out to get billions, bottles, and babes.

What does this have to do with people in ministry?

  • If you want to build a great ministry you have to keep innovating. You can’t get so hung up on perfecting your first “product” that you stop innovating altogether and never find the thing that hits.
  • If you want to build a great ministry you have to be a great manager of people.
  • If you want to build a great ministry you have to sustain. Stop looking for a better job and make your job the best job you could ever get.
  • If you want to build a great ministry you better forget about billions, bottles, and babes.
illustrations management

The Innovation Gap

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” ~ William Arthur Ward

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” ~ Sir Winston Churchill

“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” ~ Steve Jobs

I don’t pretend to know what today’s problems are for you.

But this much I do know–

  • The best ideas comes from those on the front lines. That’s the great joy of innovation. Today’s heroes count their riches while tomorrows heroes work all night.
  • Avoiding failure is a failure in itself. The trick to creating new stuff is to fail fast. Risk isn’t the enemy, comfort is.
  • Celebrate every milestone. A step towards your ultimate goal is still a step forward. Plus, moving forward will gain you momentum.
  • Every person has a creative mind. Don’t sell anyone short. Rarely are the best things innovated alone. Your best idea might come from listening to another person talk about the same problem.
  • Look at your problem from every angle. The best putters in golf walk all the way around their shot.
youth ministry

New ideas wanted

The numbers are staggering.

  • 5%-10% of the population are actively engaged in church in our country. (With some geographical variations)
  • The United States population continues to grow, the U.S. Census bureau estimates that we’ll have 392 million by 2050. (Currently 307 million)
  • There seems to be an deepening inverse relationship between the amount of money spent on “church stuff” (staff, buildings, programs, etc.) and the amount of people who are active.
  • There are now so many megachurches that we need to differentiate between the mega (under 10,000) and others gigachurches. (10,000+) At the same time, these big organizations are difficult to navigate, don’t work for everyone, and are by definition not on the cutting edge.
  • Our nation continues to become more ethnically diverse. Our churches? Not so much.
  • More and more people are moving to urban centers. The mega and gigachurch movement typically does best in the suburbs. It’s cost prohibitive to build a 10,000 seat auditorium in an urban center.
  • Meanwhile, a church planting movement continues to explode in suburbs and urban contexts, starting churches of all shapes, sizes, and denominations. (Some prioritize youth ministry, but most seem to emphasize their worship service and children’s ministry, youth ministry is a necessary afterthought.)
  • Adolescent culture continues to evolve, devolve, morph, repeat and fragment. One size doesn’t fit all more now than ever. More and more there are children growing up today who not only don’t go to church, but their parents have never attended church, nor their grandparents.

All of this to say one thing: We, the church in America, need to keep innovating just to survive!

None of the items are “bad” except the first item. We are reaching a decreasing amount of people while our population explodes.

All of these things are cries for new ideas, new innovation, and new adaptations.

Why? Because we know the church is Jesus’ chosen vehicle to carry His message of redemption, restoration, forgiveness of sins, and promise of eternal life to the population.

No excuses. Get to it.

  1. If you know Christ you are on the team. (1 Corinthians 12 implies that we are handicapped without you.) No other prerequisite is required. Soft innovation typically comes from front-line workers. Hard innovation typically comes from complete outsiders.
  2. It starts with ethnography. You need to know who your people are, what their needs are, etc.
  3. It continues with prayerful ideation and research to test your concept. Don’t go it alone, you’ll never make it.
  4. It’s empowered/driven by success stories and a healthy dose of “we’re out to stick it to the man.
  5. It’s sustained by good people doing it for the right reasons.

The time is now. Today is the day.

What are you waiting for?

hmm... thoughts

How to Stop Being Boring

Photo by Ryan Heaney via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Most people are boring.

Thirteen years ago, in our first apartment, Kristen and I lived on the 15th floor of a high rise apartment building. If you looked at just the right spot you could see Lake Michigan. And if you hung your head out the window you could look south down LaSalle Boulevard towards the loop or north towards Lincoln Park.

You could also see directly across the street into your neighbors apartment. (And I’m sure they could see directly into our apartment, too.) It’s hard to describe how fascinating it was to know that 50 feet away were people living life– just like you. All you had to do was look outside and you could see into the apartment windows of hundreds of neighbors.

It was like a human safari right outside your window.

Let me say this. We weren’t perverts who spent all night staring out the window. But it was just one of those things, you’d get up to go to the kitchen, walk by the window, and something would catch your eye…. so you’d stop and stare for a minute without even thinking about it. A light would turn on or something would move just enough to catch your attention. So you stopped and looked until you realized how creepy you must look to other people looking out their window at you.

At first we were curious that we’d see ultra-interesting things. Like crazy parties or people having sex on balconies. All our lives we’d been told that people were freaky in their private lives and here were hundreds of people’s private residences completely open for us to look at if we wanted to.

A couple weeks of living there we both came to the same conclusion: People are pretty boring.

There were times each week where something would capture your attention. But pretty quickly you’d realize that it was just a light turning on or something like that and your curiosity would lessen.

In the year that we lived there were only 3 things that were worth looking out the window for:

  1. To show visitors the view. We’d point and say, “Yup, there’s Lake Michigan. Cool, huh?”
  2. Car accidents. I vividly remember the sound of crunching vehicles in the middle of the night.
  3. The Chicago Marathon. It was really cool to look out our window and see people filling the street all the way down LaSalle Blvd.

Other than that– it was people watching television.

On any given night you could look out the window and see the same thing. Half the windows were dark. (Meaning people weren’t home or were sleeping.) 25% of the windows were mostly dark with the flickering glow of a television. 25% of the windows had lights on, but with people watching television on the couch.

Kristen and I concluded– most people’s lives are as boring as our own.

One of my favorite bloggers, Mark Cuban, wrote about this the other day.

TV is the best cure for boredom.  That is what makes TV so popular.

TV is the path of least resistance alternative to doing nothing. When you do nothing. Time passes too slowly. When you are doing something, even something that barely requires consciousness, like watching TV, there is the chance that time will go by more quickly. We look for the path of least resistance to passing time whenever we are bored. All it takes is a click of the tv remote. The boredom ends and there is even the chance that we will be entertained and really like what we are watching. So there is also significant upside to watching TV. So we watch a *&$#load of TV .

I bump into this phenomenon in a few different ways related to my blog. I love meeting blog readers… especially when someone tells me for the first time that they follow. Typically, people want to know when I have the time to write so much. (I don’t watch much TV.) People tell me that I do really interesting things. (Maybe, but maybe I just write about things that are interesting and 90% of my life is pretty boring?) People ask me where I get all of my ideas. (I’ve written about that before. It’s not that I have more ideas than anyone else. It’s that I’m disciplined to write them down for later.)

I don’t think its that my life is especially interesting. But I’ve come to my own simple conclusion: My life is boring by default.

So I make a conscious choice to not be boring.

How to Stop Being Boring

  1. Put down the remote.
  2. Do something. Anything.
  3. Put aside any excuse you can think of. (“But I don’t have money to do something interesting!”)
  4. Understand this axiom: There is nothing more fascinating than doing something interesting with nothing. Isn’t that what reality TV is? Think about the things you find interesting enough to watch on television and at their core they are typically things you could do for free.
  5. BONUS: You can stop being boring by doing nearly anything. But it’d be awesome if you fought boredom by doing good.
youth ministry

Youth Workers: Don’t Punk Out

Youth ministry seems to be facing asymmetrical challenges right now.

Two of them on the forefront of my mind are longevity and transference of wisdom.

With a tough job market and a climate of deconstruction/re-thinking/shifting in the profession… it really pains me to see a lot of very gifted youth workers move on.

Some of them are my friends. And I put on a happy face to try to be happy for you when you send me an email telling me of your bright new idea. But I’m really sad when I see our dreams for one another give way to something else. For a myriad of reasons our sophmoric desire to be in youth ministry for a lifetime has given way to leaving ministry altogether or becoming a church planter or taking a “higher” staff position at a church as executive/lead/teaching pastor.

If I read those reasons right, most of them seem to imply– more stable, more money, more powerful positions.

Let our 20-year old self talk to our 34-year old self for a second… “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?!??!!”

Those are all things we swore we wouldn’t give our dreams to. But, if I can use passive/politically correct language for a minute, life seems to be forcing some of us to sell out.

I just want to toss this out there. Maybe there are others who are sitting on the fence and looking at greener pastures.

  • Don’t punk out.
  • Working with teenagers is as important now as ever.
  • Fight the temptation to take an easier way out of your problems.
  • You’ve always said youth ministry wasn’t a stepping stone.
  • The grass won’t be greener as a church planter or a lead pastor, you know it and I know it.

We know this to be true: As cultural spins faster and faster the brightest minds and the greatest innovations are now will continue to flow from youth workers just trying to figure out how to best minister to kids in their neighborhoods. The best ministry innovations are not now nor have ever flowed from the top down. It’s always the other way around. The best innovators typically don’t have the biggest platforms nor do they typically have agents.


Intrinsic hunger forces innovation. The best ideas come when you have no other choice but to innovate.

Sure– I know someone is going to light me up for saying it. After all, who am I to question decisions that aren’t mine? And all the other voices in my friends heads telling them they need to go plant a church, be a teaching pastor, or chase another vocation must be right and I must be wrong.

But I’m allowing myself to be sad. And I’m allowing myself to put it in writing that you don’t have to punk out. Adversity, frustration, questioning, tension, getting fired, having to adapt, making less money, and being discouraged aren’t now and never have been “God closing doors.

Sometimes those things are merely a testing of calling and God rewards you for passing the test.

Sure, the world needs more senior pastors. Sure the world needs more church planters. Sure the world needs more whatever-it-is-that-is-taking-you-from-youth-ministry.

But those kids. (The kid that was you. That kid was me.) That kid will always need a youth worker there at just the right moment to say just the right thing.

Church Leadership management maturity Social Action

Innovating with an established ecosystem

Photo by fmgbain via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Starting a new organization is an entirely different task than innovating to change an existing organization.

Both are hard. But changing and existing organization is way harder.

For most of my career I’ve been in turnaround roles. Kristen and I have a little joke… My entire adult work life has seemed like one roller coaster ride after another.

Click, click, click, click… up we climb.

Click, click, click, click. My heart races.

Wait for it. Wait for it… Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Arms up. Screaming bloody murder. Thinking of the Tom Petty song, Free Falling.

Down the big hill we go.

Over and over again I’m left to help try to innovate our way out of the mess.

And, so far, I’ve been pretty successful at it by most people’s judgement.

How does one innovate within an existing ecosystem?

  1. Become Switzerland. There are political factions within any organization. If you want to get stuff done you need to be neither and empathetic both sides at the same time.
  2. Spike the football. When you do something that everyone is happy with its OK to just look into the camera and say, “Thank you very much. Woohoo! Hi mom!” I’ve seen a lot of people fail in an organization because they were afraid to take the credit for their own ideas doing well. Don’t be an idiot. It’s OK to be the guy to do good stuff. Spike the football.
  3. Own the data. Existing organizations are horrible at owning their data. I like to look at the results of a long-standing program that has had no results and say, “30 years of VBS and not a single new family? Why didn’t we just light that $300,000 on fire? At least we would have had a good BBQ.” When people are tied to tradition or the way they’ve always done things, sometimes you need to be the person with the frying pan who hits them in the head. Helping people in leadership own the data is the catalyst to getting stuff done in an existing organization.
  4. Be creative. Face it. A fist full of money and a fat belly has never created a single good idea. Have you seen Bing? No budget, no time, no research, shot in the dark… that’s when good stuff happens. That’s when the best ideas pop into your head. Creativity and innovation come out of suffering and frustration. These are your friends and allies, not your enemies.
  5. Opportunistic eyes. I keep a list of ideas I’ve got on ice. Then, when I’m in a meeting and everyone is scratching their heads looking for something new, bam… I’m pull out my concept. If I ran around screaming about every idea I had all the time I’d look like a mad scientist.

What are some ways you’ve learned to innovate within an existing ecosystem?

Church Leadership

Listen to the Right People

A big mouth doesn’t always equal an effective mouth

Photo by sroemerm via Flickr (Creative Commons)

One thing I’ve noticed happening in Christian-land these days is that there are a lot of voices saying quotable things about stuff they have no clue about.

The biggest one, something I’d label a pet peeve, is people who have successfully planted a megachurch trying to teach people in existing churches how to change their church culture.

It’s all a big misunderstanding.

Let’s face this one reality– A guy who planted a church and it grew to 10,000+ members cannot possibly help a 100 year old church of 300 who is struggling. Nor can they help a church plant that started in a house with 25 people and has grown to 200. Or a church that was once 1000 but is now 85.

Let’s face a second reality– If a person is a wonderful communicator of biblical truth they are not likely a prophet to your struggling ministry. They don’t know a single solitary thing about your situation. Nada, zip, zilch. If you had the chance to meet them they might tell you the same thing. They are probably impressed with what God does through their ministry, too. But that doesn’t mean squat to your church context.

Do take their words of encouragement personally. But let’s face it, they don’t know how to fix your church.

Should I try to change my church?

Of course! Just make sure, when you need advice, you listen to people who have actually done what you are trying to do.

  • Hire a consultant. Having an outside expert come over a series of months is probably the best and fastest thing you can do to systemically change a church. A neutral third party can be the best money you’ll ever spend.
  • Get to know people. It shocks me how fast newly hired church leaders want to move. Most church issues are based in culture. Over-eager church leaders will try to change stuff without understanding the culture enough… thus making the problem worse. Then they quit and leave the mess to someone else to clean up.
  • Become the expert on your community. You have the one advantage that truly makes a difference. You are there. When you read a book, article, or hear a message, everything you take in should be screened through the matrix of your unique church culture. Something you hear can be a fantastic idea– but a complete disaster in your culture. Become the expert of your community. (Which means spending decreasing time in the office and increasing time meeting the people you are trying to reach.)
  • Innovation is always welcome. I’ve never been in a church where new ideas were frowned upon. The trick in a church is how you implement an innovation. If people spent half the time on implementation that they spend on generating new ideas they’d be a lot better off.
  • Fools GoldPhoto by sportwrapper via Flicker (Creative Commons)

    Focus on transforming the people you have. The people in your church already have access to the people you want to reach. A popular speaker says, “You need to focus more on reaching than keeping.” That phrase shocks me. It sounds brilliant but is incredibly rude. Do you want to go to that church? I know I don’t. Rather than focusing on shedding people you don’t like why not focus on teaching in such a way that transforms those people’s hearts? Why not pray for those who are your enemies that they might become your allies? You don’t turn around a church by shedding all the people. You turn around a church by transforming people’s hearts around a common vision.

  • It’s about we not you. When I read books and listen to speakers I’m shocked at how little value they give to the leaders of their congregation. When a leader starts to say “this is my vision” everyone should automatically know that this person isn’t leading people. Vision is inclusive.
  • Measure the right things. Do measure stuff. Just make sure you measure the right stuff. I can’t believe how many people are upset with their congregations because they are measuring stuff like butts in seats and dollar bills. We both know those aren’t Kingdom measurements.
Church Leadership

The Main Thing


Could you help me out? What’s the BIGGEST issue you are dealing with in your church right now? What’s keeping you up at night? DM or @ me.

Todd Rhodes tweeted this today. And his question perfectly emphasized what I’ve been thinking about the last few days. This Fall, I’ve had the beautiful opportunity to run around the country  for work and in the course of doing so sit down and chat with people from all walks of ministry life. Big churches. Little churches. Senior pastors. Volunteers. On fire. Burnt out. Rookies. Seasoned veterans. It seems like I’ve had a chance to get the pulse of a pretty good sample of people doing ministry today.

At some point in most of those conversations a single theme rang true: We need to spend less time on stuff that doesn’t really matter and focus more time on things that really change lives.

More specifically, ministry-people want/need/long to focus more intently on presenting Christ than anything else! They want to focus more on the “main thing” and less on stuff like building an amazing program.

It seems like the last 20-25 years of church ministry we elevated a ministry leaders value to “what else can you do?” as opposed to “are you a minister?” You’d hear things like “That person is a powerful leader of his staff.” “That woman runs the most efficient youth program in the world!” “He is an amazing worship leader.” On and on.

Those are all value statements about ministry program skills and not the “main thing.”

And people in full time ministry are pretty frustrated by it. We didn’t go into ministry to be valued by our skill set, did we?

I experience this all the time. People seek me out to talk about “how I can help their ministry” all the time. It’s because I have a skill and not because of who I am in Christ.

Certainly, it is nice to have skills that people seek out. (Don’t get me wrong!) But I’m often left wondering… “Do these people really think I’m all about social media, internet utilities, strategy, design?” I hope not. I hope they recognize that these are the means to an end. The reason I work so hard on these skills is to convey the most important message in human history! At the core of who I am is not a tech nerd. I want to be a nerd who passionately loves Jesus and wants to reach the lost. My skills are not my “main thing” and I shudder to think of others looking at me and thinking it’s my main thing.

To answer Todd’s question: I hope people lay in bed at night thinking about their ministry. I hope the Holy Spirit stirs them at 2:00 AM to innovate powerful things. But I also hope they aren’t wasting their time and sleep on stuff that isn’t the “main thing”.