As I mentioned in my “response to the responses” post, the book 10 Rules For Strategic Innovators, by Dartmouth professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, lays out a strategy on how to innovate a new business out of an established business model. In fact, the authors argue that existing businesses have an extraordinary advantage over a stand-alone startup. Existing businesses are in a position offer an immense amount of resources and ability to quickly build out a new structure and business model.
The UMC finds itself in this unique position with unique resources, carrying the potential for new growth through innovative new ministry initiatives and church plants.
One of the successful innovative ventures, born out of an existing company, that the authors outline is New York Times Digital. Facing a declining print subscription base, The NYT created its digital division to utilize the internet to reach an emerging digital audience and create new revenue streams. As much as we hate ads and paywalls it’s hard to argue that this venture was a failure. Success, however, only came because they were able to overcome three key challenges: forgetting, borrowing and learning. The authors argue that innovative initiates fail because they fail to grasp one or more of these challenges.
What I’ve offered below are only highlights of how I understand Govindarajan and Trimble’s challenges of forgetting, borrowing and learning, to work and how they can help us during an era of innovation in The UMC. If you want more in-depth and probably far more accurate information you will need to read the book.
My good friend and colleague, James Kang, is famous for making the bold statement, “In order for the United Methodist Church to succeed, it must first stop being the United Methodist Church.” On the surface it’s a provocative statement. But do we really need to tear it all down and create something new? I don’t think so. However, I do think he’s right in the sense that we must do some selective forgetting. We don’t want to forget our doctrine, heritage, some of our polity and our connectional system. But in creating new ministries in new contexts we must forget some of our bad, misguided and outdated habits. This will involve some retraining of current leaders but also recruitment of some leaders outside of The UMC that do not carry much of our denomination’s dysfunctional DNA. We want folks who would fit well with our doctrine and polity but do not cling to our institutional baggage.
Successful church planters and revitalization leaders tend to forget well, because they are trained on how to grow churches through building relationships and creating relevant ministries for their contexts. Taking too many people from existing dysfunctional ministries is an example of a barrier to forgetting. It’s hard to design new DNA when there are too many people in the ministry who come from the DNA you are trying not to replicate.
Although he didn’t intend this resource to be about “forgetting,” church planting expert, Jim Griffith, outlines 10 common mistakes that church planters make that actually speak to many of the things we need to forget. Things such as too much focus on an unrealistic mission/vision (Dan Dick recently tackled this), failure to continue to reach new people after launch, fear of talking about money, too much focus on a worship service as the only way to grow and connect people, etc.
Borrowing is a concept that we often fail to fully take advantage of. We have a vast amount of resources that are underutilized or misappropriated. One immediate point of contention between new ministries, established ministries and the overall institution is how resources are used to support the new ministry. Of course this includes money and new projects need the proper amount of funding from the institution in its early years. Resources can also include people, help from established ministries, meeting space, materials, existing contacts and relationships, etc. The new ministry will want to choose wisely the specific and amount of resource links to the institution, because too many or improper links can lead to a failure to forget. Borrowing can cause tension because established ministries often want to protect their membership and resources, in fear that the new ministry will put them out of existence. Borrowing can also frustrate the hierarchy if they do not see the ministry growing fast enough or accomplishing its goals. Borrowing requires a strong advocate at the conference level (ahem, CIO) for the new ministry who can obtain the proper resources for the new ministry and help justify the use of those resources to the hierarchy.
Learning is perhaps the concept that we neglect the most. A strong learning process can help new innovations become successful and over time makes innovation faster and more efficient. If we can create stronger learning processes we can adapt faster to an ever-changing world. This takes a change in attitude around failure. New ministry planters and the hierarchy have to become comfortable with and honest about failure, otherwise learning will be difficult. Successful learning requires a stronger focus on predictions (as opposed to benchmarks) and the ability to effectively evaluate new ministries with self-interest and self-preservation influencing the learning process as little as possible. Indeed, as the authors argue, a leader should be evaluated on their ability to learn, adapt their model and revise their predictions. Of course learning only counts if we actually do it. Learning should ultimately lead to better execution and the ability to better decide whether a new endeavor should continue or be shut down. Up front, learning can be slow and expensive. Over time, however, our ability to learn should lead to quicker successes and less costly endeavors.
In future posts I will be offering some case studies from current UMC ministries whose success or failure can be evaluated based on the ability or lack of ability to overcome these challenges.
Until then, I would love to hear from you in the comments. How can we be better at forgetting, borrowing and learning?