Mindsets for Innovation
We needed a win in a bad way.
In my first year as CEO of a small nonprofit, we faced financial, staffing and program challenges. Global Mapping International (GMI) provided research products and services for global missions (the organization is now closed), and thankfully the former CEO had proactively commissioned a study on how nonprofit leaders used information in their decision making. We had dozens of interviews, reams of data and focus group insights. What we needed now was a new program that would leverage what we had learned and give us momentum!
Life is a series of opportunities to turn your beliefs into disciplined action.
Life is a series of opportunities to turn your beliefs into disciplined action. Every God-honoring ministry success story can be reduced to this simple truth. I make this bold claim because we see Paul’s challenge in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Paul knows that the journey has many obstacles, and he reminds Timothy that the Holy Spirit makes God-powered action possible when we believe.
An Innovative First: Missiographics
As a step of faith, GMI launched an untried, innovative product. Our research identified the need for global ministry data in easy-to-read formats. Research reports locked up valuable insight that ministry leaders needed to act. We responded by partnering with a foundation to launch the first ever mission infographic service, Missiographics. (Today, Missio Nexus, the North American association representing organizations, churches and businesses engaged in the Great Commission has taken over operations of the service and continues to create new infographics and host the archives.) This infographic service continues to provide regular visual representations of important mission information.
Through the Missiographics program and other efforts I have led as an innovation practitioner, I have learned an important lesson: our ability to practice disciplined innovation comes down to whether we will listen, believe, act, and follow-through.
Why isn’t innovation commonplace in faith-based organizations?
Why isn’t innovation commonplace in faith-based organizations? Do we fail to believe God will do what he says? Do we refuse to act on his commands? Many leaders believe and respond but struggle to follow-through. This article addresses the struggle for follow-through to help you unstick your innovation efforts.
Three Pitfalls Every Leader Experiences as They Innovate
Everything worth doing has pitfalls, and innovation is no exception. We need to find a way around these obstacles on our innovation journeys. Three “R’s” can describe the most common pitfalls ministry leaders run into.
Pitfall #1: Reputation
The main currency in a nonprofit is influence. You might be short on cash and survive, but if your reputation is tarnished, you won’t make it. For this reason, innovation is scary. Doing something new is risky and requires comfort with ambiguity. Many leaders have opportunities to innovate, but when faced with the risk to their reputation, they back away.
When you are undertaking innovation efforts, be up front about the reputational issue. Decide at the leadership team (or board) level what risks you are comfortable with as a group. Challenge yourselves to be open to greater risk than would come naturally, especially when you are confident the innovation is God-honoring.
At GMI we ran into this issue quickly with Missiographics. The risk for misunderstanding was great as we sought to simplify complex data into an accessible form. We had to wrestle with the reputational danger of being labeled as unprofessional or careless in our effort to creatively visualize data.
Pitfall #2: Resources
Innovation isn’t free and doing new things takes political capital, people’s time and finances. Often leaders want their organizations to be innovative but will not spend resources in support of this desire. Some leaders will spend resources in year one and assume a return too soon after. It’s important to realize that to be successful in innovation, you need to spend three to five years investing real resources to build the process of disciplined innovation within your organization. This requires the leadership and board to be clear about the objectives of the innovation and learning outcomes. Fail to make the investment, and it is not reasonable to expect the impact.
Missiographics was possible because of a generous foundation grant, but part of the plan was to sustain the program through advertising and professional services. We soon found that each infographic took more resources than we could recoup easily. Because we doubled down and invested more time, we were able to increase revenue over time.
Pitfall #3: Resolve
Resolve is the most insidious obstacle to innovation. Knowing when to quit and when to push through is a challenge of discernment. Nonprofits tend to err on the side of pulling out too quickly. The objectives and learning outcomes aren’t clearly defined, so the leader does not have the tools necessary to evaluate whether to push forward or abandon the experiment. Often, reputation and resources sap resolve.
As we developed Missiographics, we had plenty of naysayers, critics and complaints. The work of synthesizing complex data into simple, compelling infographics was difficult. However, we knew that GMI’s mission would be accomplished when people understood and used the information to make Spirit-led decisions. We also had clear engagement and revenue objectives that helped us see if we were making progress. The sense that this was valuable to God’s kingdom allowed us to maintain our resolve amid frustration.
Three Mindsets that Equip Leaders for Innovation in Mission
A mindset is a mental posture that you apply to the things you face. Your mindset affects the results of your work because it underpins your actions and helps you overcome the pitfalls.
Mindset #1: The Opportunity Mindset
When you wake up in the morning, an opportunity mindset will be on full display. What do you see in that first email? Is the situation a problem or an opportunity? The opportunity mindset allows you to see an opportunity in any situation, no matter how challenging. However, it also does not dismiss the challenges inherent in pursuing it.
This mindset was a huge help in our exploration of mission infographics. We knew of dozens of datasets and research efforts going on in global mission. By seeing each one as an opportunity for powerful visualization, we were able to identify creative ways to bring the data to life.
Mindset #2: Humble Listening
Our listening posture must guide our response to opportunities. Spending time listening to people with real problems helps the innovator come up with new ideas that present real solutions. It is tempting to fall in love with our solution without spending enough time listening to those who have the problem we want to solve. Instead of developing an innovation that is well positioned to meet real needs, we may develop solutions that look good on paper but miss the mark.
What set up Missiographics for success was the listening that happened early on. Building on the research, we held focus groups to evaluate ideas that had surfaced. We also listened carefully to the researchers, designers and readers involved with the various infographics we developed. All that listening gave us confidence that we were solving a real problem.
Mindset #3: Gracious Tenacity
We have all read about the innovative exploits of Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. These titans pushed through huge obstacles to bring new innovations to their fields. But many times, those accomplishments were at the expense of others, especially their co-workers. Often you will hear people excuse harsh nature of the entrepreneur who is doing “what it takes” to make a difference. Innovation in kingdom work should have a different mindset. I call it “gracious tenacity” which simply means being gracious as we pursue what God puts in front of us to do.
Innovation in kingdom work should have a different mindset.
This was on display with Missiographics when we negotiated between readers, staff, researchers, and designers. A good infographic required us to tenaciously push through the noise to the real insight in the data. All parties had to wrestle with the different perspectives and decisions being made in telling those visual stories. It required grace to see each party’s perspective and try to represent their input in the final product.
As you reflect on how these pitfalls and mindsets have played a part in your innovation journey, what might you do to recognize the pitfalls and address them with the mindsets? What new and impactful ministry programs, products or services might come to life if you would be willing to press into a disciplined innovation process?
Jon Hirst is an innovation practitioner serving with SIL International. He is the author of several books including, Innovation in Mission (Authentic, 2007). He lives in Southern Wisconsin with his wife Mindy and their three children.