The petrie dish for innovation

Times of crisis reveal what is and isn’t working. These are the times when obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices collapse or fall by the wayside. They are the times when the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship, burst into full flower, enabling recovery by remaking both the economy and society.

In The Great Reset, Richard Florida goes on to point out that the greatest periods of innovation in U.S. history were the 1870s and the 1930s. Those two depressions were marked by huge spikes in research for patents and technological progress. Florida says that depressions create a reset for society, acting like a forest fire to clear out the old growth and make room for the new.

Want to read more? Steve Moore, president of The Mission Exchange has written a fascinating case statement based on his reading, research and intuition about the future. It’s the basis for this post and for the upcoming North American Mission Leaders Conference in Arizona.

In a recent post, I referred to Hizb’allah, the terrorist group that Joshua Cooper Ramo characterizes as the most innovative organization in the world. Constant pressure and hardship has resulted in incredible inventions such as the Improvised Explosive Device that, for as little five dollars, can paralyze the lavishly-funded military of the United States. That example leads me to wonder where else we should see innovation thriving. On a political level, I would think the Israeli military would be one place. The persecuted church should be another. Constant threat leads to either innovation or death.

From a historical perspective, I have great optimism for the next few years. World missions needs a reset, and I think it’s happening. The next couple of years should stand out as a period of incredible breakthroughs in strategies, technology, partnerships and ideation. Breakthroughs will happen, many of them outside the world of mission agencies. The question is which organizations will be best positioned to take advantage or to ride the wave? No doubt many who take advantage are not in existence today. But will older organizations make the leap? I suggest the difference in organizations that make the adjustments and organizations that dig in their heels to try to hold onto the past is leadership.

Let me close by quoting Steve Moore’s conclusion:

We need a fresh wave of Spirit empowered entrepreneurial risk takers and mission pioneers who lean in to what God is doing in the midst of turbulent times, seizing what may prove to be unprecendented windows of opportunity that come with a Great Reset moment.

I’m getting excited. How about you?

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Where angels fear to tread

Steve Moore’s list included a good indicator of early leadership that’s worth commenting on: individuals who are willing to take on a challenge others won’t. The ones who show initiative to take advantage of opportunity. The ones whose resistance to risk is overtaken by a compulsion that someone has to do something.

Leaders sometimes appear to come out of nowhere with a sudden success. I suspect I know what Malcomb Gladwell would say: that there are no overnight successes, and the individual has put in a lot of hours beforehand that led to such “instance success.” I agree. I think it’s easier to spot failure than to spot competence, and individuals like these have likely shown signs of potential along the way. What gets them noticed is the turnaround situation where they made something out of nothing.

There’s a well-worn piece of advice that seems relevant: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Remember that line from Amazing Grace, where a 24-year-old William Pitt first proposes to William Wilberforce that he thinks he can make a run at prime minister?

Wilberforce: No one of our age has ever taken power.
Pitt: Which is why we’re too young to realize certain things are impossible. Which is why we will do them anyway.

Some watch that movie and get inspired by Wilberforce; I get inspired by Pitt. Wilberforce succeeded through persistence and endurance; Pitt succeeded by sheer audacity. Perhaps he was a fool, but maybe that’s the point. In Moore’s recent book, While You Were Micro-Sleeping, he makes the point that experts and elitists “can’t ask the dumb questions that often trigger new ideas.” Most innovations come from fools.

Certainly, the pessimism born from experience becomes a block to innovation, but I think there’s another factor at work than just being too young to show caution. I think it’s a matter of conviction and motivation — that sometimes a situation is so dire, with no one willing to take it on, that a young person decides the worst they can do is fail. They have less to lose. Or that a frustrated young leader who never gets opportunity sees in a challenge a chance to go all in. With great risk comes great reward. We can probably all think of young leaders who took on big challenges and came out of nowhere to lead a new era. These are the kinds of stories we love.

But what about the other side? The stories of those who try and fail — or who never try — don’t get told. The younger generations have been long characterized as having an unhealthy fear of failure. Pessimism and skepticism is just as rampant among the young as it is among the old. I’ve had conversations with three young leaders in the past month who have recently faced choices: one relatively safe and one with greater risk. In all three cases, the young leader has opted for safety. There are good reasons for their decisions. No one would question their logic. But I’m disappointed.

Here’s the thing. Organizations need young leaders to step up. Hierarchical organizations need young leaders who master relational influence over positional authority. High-process organizations need young leaders who push back on bureaucracy and ask uncomfortable questions. Monocultural organizations need trailblazers who easily bridge cultures. And older, established organizations need age diversity.

What it comes down to is that the world doesn’t need an older you. The world needs young leaders who are willing to step up and take on the unique challenges we’re facing… today.

Servants and visionaries

I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes. It takes someone special to see an opportunity that everyone else has missed… and get there first.

The key to a great visionary is that everyone else asks themselves why they didn’t think of that. Somehow, in the context everyone was looking at, no one else saw the opportunity or was positioned to take advantage. I was reminded recently that a number of the companies that took our economy down last year were founded during the Great Depression. They were founded by visionaries who found a way to do things differently when everyone else was stuck in the decline. Unfortunately, the companies they started weren’t able to sustain that heritage… or held onto their heritage. A topic for another day, I suppose.

Likewise, servants have good eyes. Think about every period movie about British high society you’ve ever seen. Someone pointed out to me that the key to being a good servant was to watch their master’s hands. A good servant could anticipate the need of their master by watching body language and meet the need before it was expressed. I see the same quality in people who serve in my church today. There’s an ability to notice something that’s not being done and jump in before the need is even expressed. When you run an event, you want to stock your team with that type of person.

Leaders today need good eyes. They need to be visionary, and they need to be servants — people with the agility and flexibility to see a need and respond. So, where do we find those qualities in the next generation? As Steve Moore and Tim Elmore remind us, we can look for people who are already serving somewhere. We can look for people who look at challenges and see opportunity. We can look for initiative.

As I mentioned before, we can also look for people who are others-focused, who “watch the hands” of both their managers and their direct reports. They look for opportunities to empower and develop others. They give assignments and then invert the hierarchical pyramid to support their staff in the job they’ve been asked to do. They are quick to give credit to their staff or team for the success they might enjoy.

If you’re looking for servant leaders, start with character. Promote from among your servants.

The future is coming!

“Hurry, everybody! Hide! The future is coming!”

I think my three-year-old daughter summed up the way a lot of people feel about the future. Time to put our heads in the sand. Maybe it’ll go away.

I’m really enjoying the premise of the new show, FlashForward — the idea that everyone on the planet gets a two-minute glimpse of their future six months ahead. For some, this glimpse gives them hope. For others, it’s agonizing. As the season moves ahead, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show tackles ideas like free will, our ability to control our destiny and our inherent brokenness. I’m quite sure I’ll be disappointed, but I might also be pleasantly delighted at the truth the show exposes.

Yesterday morning I led Wycliffe USA’s leaders in a discussion on succession planning. One point I made is that you can’t anticipate the leadership needs of an organization or department by looking at today’s leader. The tendency if you do that is either to seek a clone to succeed an incumbent or rather to seek a reaction to the incumbent — someone who has strengths where the incumbent is weak. Unfortunately, the present is a bad starting place for succession planning. You have to force yourself into an assessment of the organization and an assessment of future trends that then defines the leadership needs of an organization or department. Where are the challenges and opportunities going to be? Who can take advantage and lead us in that reality?

The future is coming. Are you the kind of person who sticks your head in the sand, or one who wishes you could see around corners? Are you excited or depressed about what you see?

Willow Creek Thoughts

I’m chewing on my notes from the first day of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, looking for patterns and the fingerprints of God. A couple of things jump out as I put the various threads from yesterday together.

1. Our current crises are opportunity. I knew that already, but it was good to hear Bill Hybels and Gary Hamel say it.

Hybels: How do gifted leaders react? With perverse excitement at the opportunities. These are perfect conditions for greatness to emerge.

Hamel: Should we wring our hands or thank God for the opportunity?

I think your reaction depends on whether you’re more concerned with defending the past or strategizing for the future. It also depends on how nimble you are. I think of Rudolph Guiliani on 9/11. He had a long-term plan for the city, though the average person in Orlando never heard about it or cared. That was the plan that no doubt led him to the meeting that happened to be right near the Trade Center that morning. But if Guiliani was anything, he was nimble as he reacted to the crisis, and greatness emerged.

2. Leadership in the future is going to look quite different. Gary Hamel and Jessica Jackley (founder of Kiva) both talked about a lack of hierarchy.

Hamel: It’s a challenge to build organizations that can survive without superhumans at the top. Leaders today are less concerned with control and more concerned with connecting, mobilizing and supporting. Their strategies are open and their hierarchy is flat.

Jackley: When you assume co-creation as a value from the beginning, top-down management doesn’t work.

If the hero leader is an old and failed model, as I’ve blogged about before, how do we move to the idea that a team can fill the impossibly long list of requirements for a CEO? Could you have different members of the team to cover the multiple roles of rousing public speaker, visionary leader, internal communicator, disciplined manager and caring, accessible, sympathetic boss? High-level leadership would sure look more attainable if we could find a way to lead in community.

3. Ideas need contribution. Gary Hamel had a couple of zingers, but one metaphor is going to stick with me:

Ideas shouldn’t develop like a pregnancy, where something happens in private and then a number of months later, out comes a nice package, but as a family picnic, out in the open where everyone contributes.

How do we get everyone — colleagues, clients, etc. — involved in our future? How can a large organization move to co-creation? Others have managed to reinvent themselves.

At lunch, one of our staff members pointed out that he’s been around long enough to see us move from bottom-up leadership to top-down leadership, and now we’re talking about bottom-up leadership again. I’m not sure we’re really back where we started. I think our world and our technology has evolved to the point that we now have the ability to co-create instead of individual brainstorming that has to be pulled together by an individual. It may have flavors of the old, but it feels new.