Posted On November 23, 2013

Innovations Dirty Little Secrets: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail“What is the dirty little secret of innovation? It’s simply this: most innovations fail. They always have. And they always will. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a new product, a new program, or a new process. It can be a new company or even a new church. When it comes time to start something new or make a major change, the surest horse you can bet on is the one call Failure.” 

The truth is that most leadership courses dealing with the topics of innovation and leadership rarely ever touch on the reality of failure, unless it is to tell a “rags to riches” type story of college dropout Steve Jobs (or a story similar to that). We like to focus primarily on positive stories, even if the inevitable truth is that most of our innovations and leadership will end in failure. It is too easy to blame the failure of others on “foolish ideas, bad planning, or inept leadership”, while thinking that we are different because our ideas are definitely better, our planning is more detail-orientated, and our leadership is awe-inspiring. However, the question that should materialize in our minds is this: How do we avoid the failure that so often plagues leadership and innovations? Or, maybe a better way to put it is how do we “fail forward” in such a way that our failures don’t define who we are, but cause us to grow/change in the ways that God wants us to? Avoiding failure in leadership and innovation is really not an option, so lets adopt a mindset of gleaning from it what God would have us glean, and become better leaders and innovators focused on the glory of God.

Innovations Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail, is broken up into the following seven parts:

– Part 1: Have an Exit Strategy 
* There are two different kinds of innovators: One-hit wonders who bring a new idea to the market at just the right time and their innovation, even though it is successful, is the only time they bring a successful idea to the world. The other kind is the serial innovator who “pull off multiple innovations and major changes seemingly without a hitch.”
* There are also two kinds of serial innovators: The unconscious competent who, when asked why/how they came up with their innovation, are only able to tell you what they think they did but not what they actually did (they do things at a subconscious level…think along the terms of a natural athlete). The conscious competent are those “who are successful at innovating time after time and also know why and how they are successful.” One of the key differences between the two serial innovators is, “unlike unconscious competents, these innovators are self-aware. They know what they are doing and why they are doing it. And unlike the theorists and researchers who study and write about innovation, but have never pulled it off themselves, they know firsthand the nuances of innovating and leading change in the real world.”
* One of the key questions answered in this part of the book is how do you recognize a serial innovator from a one-hit wonder? Larry offers three traits to look for: 1. A special kind of insight; 2. A unique form of courage; 3. Extraordinary flexibility.
* Also, are serial innovators crazy risk-takers, or are they methodical and calculated in the risks they take? Larry argues, and I agree with him, that serial innovators are risk-adverse. “They don’t value risk for risk’s sake. They know the reward is not in the size of the risk. It’s in the quality of the risk.”
* Now, having been given tools to identify who in our organization/church are one-hit wonders and which ones are serial innovators, and differentiating the unconscious versus conscious competent serial innovators, Larry focuses in on the following major question: “So how can we know when it’s time to let our innovators make a major change or innovate and when it’s time to hunker down and protect the gains of the past?” The honest answer is that you can never know with 100% assurance when you should proceed with a major change or innovation, but if you have a good pre-planned Exit Strategy (a planned, graceful way out) then that can help you “green-light” more innovations/changes than normally might since you have a pretty clear-cut way to exit if it is not successful.
* Finally, Larry provides 8 really good questions at the end of Part 1 that serial innovators pose to themselves before they “decide on when it’s time to move forward, put on the brakes, hit the gas, or bail out in order to live and try again another day.”

– Part 2: Igniting Innovation 
* Before dealing with how we can cultivate an innovation-friendly environment, Larry deals with what the term innovation really means. According to Larry, an innovation is an idea that must, “(1) work in the real world, and (2) be widely adopted within a particular organization or industry or in the marketplace.” Also, just because something is new doesn’t mean that it qualifies as an innovation. An example of this is the Segway.
* “The secret to becoming a creative and innovative organization is not found in having lots of ideas, trying lots of things, or making lots of changes. It’s found in having the right kinds of ideas, trying the right kinds of things, and launching the right kinds of products, programs, and initiatives.”
* A distinction also needs to be made between artistic innovation and organizational innovation. Artistic innovation is rooted in self-expression, and for the most part ignores boundaries…”it seeks to be unique and different.” There is very little concern in the artistic innovator on whether the average person likes their innovation, understands it, or even puts it to good use. The organizational innovator is focused on solving problems, and does not see their innovation as a means of “self-expression”.
* Finally, the way to develop a culture of innovation is to constantly ask yourself (and those around you) the following two questions: 1. What frustrates me most? 2. What’s broken most? When these two simple questions are asked, then innovations are born.

– Part 3: Accelerating Innovation 
* A clear mission statement in your organization/church also helps to foster innovation. Your mission statement should not be a ton of cliche’s strung together to make a pithy statement, but it should be a “ruthlessly honest” statement that reflects your organizations passionate pursuit.
* The vision statement should be widely known, easily remembered, and broadly accepted. “When your mission statement is an honest reflection of your passion, is widely known, and is broadly accepted, it will not only help you get where you want to go; it will accelerate innovation. That’s because when you have an obvious goal, it becomes clear which ideas and innovations will help propel you toward that goal and which are merely great ideas that won’t impact your goal and mission in any significant way.”
* One of the strongest things about this Part of the book is Larry’s call to create a culture that has a bias for action. This doesn’t imply “taking stupid risks”, but it does imply that we should create a culture that is primed for action and ready to try new things out without being crippled by a lack of data. The honest truth is that a lot of failures are victories as we are able to glean things from these failures that will help us make smarter decisions going forward as it pertains to future innovations. Now, there is a time when gathering more data and proof are warranted, and that is “whenever failure could be fatal to the organization or to the credibility of your leadership team…”, so I don’t want to state that all data-gathering is wrong. The problem is that most organizations spend way too much time, money, and effort in gathering information, and not enough time actually putting into action innovations.

– Part 4: Sabotaging Innovation 
* Some failures are final, and that is an honest truth that we can’t avoid. If we mess up and commit a felony (say vehicular manslaughter), then that type of failure is something that will be with us till the day we die and can never be fully overcome. Their are leadership felonies that can be committed that will be almost impossible to overcome and they are the following: moral failure (lie, cheat, break promises, or reveal the moral bankruptcy of your character), the spotlight’s curse (failures that occur after someone is in the spotlight that would have been easy to overcome had they preceded the spotlight, but since they have occurred after the spotlight has already been achieved they are hard to overcome), the curse of hype (an overhyped failure), and finally the curse of leadership ADHD (repeated failure…lots of things started, but nothing is finished).
* Another thing that sabotages innovation is too many people involved in the innovation process, which “waters down the contribution of serial innovators.”
* There is also a focus on how we need to be careful in trusting yesterday’s success, because it can hinder tomorrow’s innovation.

– Part 5: Breakout Decisions 
* The hard truth is that every organization and leader hits the proverbial wall. Some people see it coming, but most of us don’t because the wall wasn’t hit soon after an innovation/change was enacted. Instead, it was the result “of a long and slow process that no one noticed, like a ‘sudden’ flat tire caused by overworn tread.” How do we respond once we realize that the wall has been hit? According to Larry, some leaders respond by continuing on their present course by pouring more money into it, some respond by talking to as many consultants as possible or attending more conferences, some respond by making more and more tweaks hoping to “shake something loose”, some tighten up protocol and procedures to make sure everyone is doing their jobs, and some just scream and shout as loud as they can at people in hopes to motivate them to perform better.
* “Hitting this wall can usually be traced back to one of three things: (1) we’ve outgrown our leadership skills, (2) our organization has outgrown its structures, or (3) we’ve been blindsided by a cultural shift we never saw coming.” If you want to know how to breakthrough your wall, then you need to identify which one you are facing and adjust accordingly.

– Part 6: Why Vision Matters 
* We oftentimes confuse mission and vision, and need to realize that these are two different things. “A mission statement explains why your church, nonprofit, or company exists. It clarifies what you’re aiming at without much detail. It’s a laserlike description of your ultimate goal. It describes the bull’s-eye.” Vision on the otherhand “is much more detailed. It’s the narrative that describes what success is supposed to look like in detailed and real-life terms. It puts flesh on your missional bones.”
* A clear mission statement that lacks a detailed vision will typically result in a “confused and splintered team”. Everyone on your team is basically doing what is right in their own eyes.
* A detailed vision minus a clear mission statement typically results in an organization doing a ton of activities but with no real understanding of why they are doing what they are doing. Your team is unsure if what they are doing is accomplishing anything since there is no way to measure success.
* A good leader (1) Verifies the Vision, (2) Communicates the Vision, (3) Builds a Team Around the Vision, and (4) Preserves and Protects the Vision and Values.

– Part 7: A Legacy of Innovation 
* A challenge that Larry leaves us with is for us to “build a team that produces serial innovators.” We should desire to leave an organizational structure in place that is constantly churning out serial innovators changing the world in a way that honors Christ.

I tried to provide a somewhat brief synopsis of each of the 7 Parts of Larry Osborne’s book. Even though there is nothing really earth-shattering in this book, it was a good read on recognizing and developing leaders. The concerns I had with the book were two-fold. One, even though Osborne is a Pastor at North Coast, it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that we were provided examples of how the things Osborne was recommending played out in a church setting. I found myself in the first half of the book almost begging for examples in a church-type setting. The second half of the book was filled with really good examples of how his advice played out in a church setting, and I was very appreciative of that. The second issue I had with the book was that there was no warning against pragmatism as far as a Christian is concerned. It was hinted at by Osborne, but I thought there should have been more time focus on just because something might work (or did work) does not mean that God wants you to do it because it violates His Word. That might sound like it is something that should be pretty obvious, but the truth is that it is not obvious to a bunch of people that run in Christian circles. There are Pastors/Organizations that are willing to try anything and everything under the sun in order to gain just one more visitor, and we need to be careful of that. My hope is that this review will educate you on the approach that Osborne takes in this book, and why I think it would benefit everyone to read it.

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross-Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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