“Innovation is not the holy grail”

A passage from the article titled “Innovation is not the holy grail,” by Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair, in the Fall, 2012 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review (vol. 10, no. 4), interspersed with my comments:

We believe three oversights contribute to a tendency to concurrently overrate and undervalue innovation and to downplay the difficulties of enabling innovation in social sector organizations.

First, innovation is often perceived as a development shortcut; thus innovation becomes overrated. The tremendous value that is created by incremental improvements of the core, routine activities of social sector organizations gets sidelined. Therefore pushing innovation at the expense of strengthening more routine activities may actually destroy rather than create value.

The core, routine activities of the typical congregation are worship services, religious education for young people, and pastoral care. So for congregations, this would imply that innovations that sideline incremental improvements to these core, routine activities — which may include major building projects, social enterprises (i.e., ventures that make money), cafes, radically innovative worship services — may destroy value. And in fact, we’ve all seen this happen — building projects that result in decreased Sunday morning attendance, social justice projects that take so much energy that pastoral care is degraded, social enterprises that distract from the congregation’s primary mission.

Second, innovation in social sector organizations often has little external impact to show when it is enacted in unpredictable environments. Even proven innovations often fail when transferred to a different context. Yet the cumulative learning from failures may be tremendously valuable in understanding how a particular context ticks. This potentially builds and strengthens an organization’s capacity for productive innovation over time. In other words, if we evaluate innovation primarily by its outcome in the form of external impact, we may undervalue the positive internal organizational impact that comes rom learning from failed innovations.

A couple of obvious points here: (1) You know that cool-sounding innovative something-or-other that you read about in UU World magazine? There’s a good chance that it won’t work in your setting or context. (2) A failed innovation can build and strengthen your organization. So that innovative worship service that failed? — if it helped you learn about your constituency and your organizational structure, and if it helped strengthen your vision of your primary mission, then it had a positive impact and was worth the time and effort even if it did fail.

Third, the hoped-for success factors for innovation that researchers and consultants have identified ignore the power of negative organizational factors, such as bad leadership, dysfunctional teams, and overambitious production goals.

In liberal congregations, bad leadership often involves: a lack of ongoing kill and knowledge development, especially in boards; recruitment based on getting warm bodies rather than finding competent people; lack of accountability; paid staff who are lazy (lack of accountability will encourage laziness); etc. Dysfunction often manifests itself on the one hand as paid staff (especially ministers and Directors of Religious Education) who overfunction, based on the hubristic assumption that they are more skilled and knowledgeable than lay leaders; or on the other hand lay leaders who distrust and dismiss the judgment of the paid staff who were supposedly hired for their expertise. As for overambitious production goals — there are far too many congregations that set overly ambitious short-range growth goals without having built up the infrastructure to support growth.

These pathologies make the implementation of innovation nearly impossible. Consequently, a naive trust in innovation success factors leads to underappreciating the difficulties of making organizations more innovative, and it may generate innovation failures by pushing the wrong factors.

Innovation is not a panacea. We need to begin with incremental improvements to the routine activities of our congregations, deal with negative organizational factors (bad leadership, dysfunctional teams, overambitious goals) before trying innovation, and assume that many innovations will end in failures from which we will have to learn.

At the denominational level, this doesn’t give me much hope for the success of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Beyond Congregations” initiative (negative organizational factors are likely to kill it). But it does give me hope for inter-district, regional collaboration (since it is based on incremental improvements to core, routine activities).

At the congregational level, this doesn’t give me much hope for most congregational growth initiatives. But it does give me hope for the congregations that are dealing with negative organizational factors, and that focus their main efforts on incrementally improving worship services, religious education, and pastoral care.

One thought on ““Innovation is not the holy grail””

  1. Interesting. You could replace “innovation” with “development” up here in the Midwest. That is: new factories/strip malls/franchises/Olive Gardens (that’s a big thing up here, believe me) will save your community.

    Probably not. Our efforts would be better spent on “routine activies…[and] deal[ing] with negative organizational factors.” But, then again, bringing in that Olive Garden would sure be good for the community…

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