The key to innovation is risk.

It has two key measurables: success and failure. Success seems like a better metric for innovation. But here’s the problem with success: if you succeed on your first, or even your second try, you’ll never know what other radically innovative ideas you never got to. When I was a graphic designer, I knew what to do with my first few ideas. I worked diligently to articulate them, get them down on paper… and then crumple them up and toss them. First ideas are cliché. They’re your mind’s inclination toward laziness — knowing that if you can come up with a quick solution, you can save yourself the emotional and physical stress of actually working hard to find a great solution.

You cannot undervalue those first few ideas. I wasn’t being completely facetious when I said I worked diligently on them. It’s a discipline you have to go through to actually write them down. If you don’t, you hold onto them in some form. The idea is to fail and then move on toward truly great ideas. I’ve seen a lot of recent design school graduates who were never taught the discipline part; they go straight to the computer and start tinkering without taking the time to brainstorm and sketch and get the failed ideas out of their system.

Assuming your organization is somewhat healthy, where you see failure, you’re seeing risk. Where you’re seeing risk, you’re seeing innovation. Therefore, if you want a culture of innovation, you need to take the time to honor failure.

This post is relevant in the context of my last few posts. Taking a risk on someone who has failed before takes courage. To act as if the Holy Spirit has made a person new opens yourself and your organization to failure. Every one of those “projects” will not turn out as a win. The question is whether you’re expecting perfection, or if you’re going in prepared for some failure and taking steps to mitigate the risk.

When’s the last time you celebrated failure? When is the last time you reported it as a key metric for innovation? Failing is not the end; rather, it’s a sign of health.

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What is the place for people like Barnabas in management? Saul would never have completed his turnaround if Barnabas hadn’t noted the fruit of his change. John Mark would have been forever labeled a quitter if Barnabas hadn’t taken him under his wing, even at the expense of his partnership with Paul. When the Holy Spirit does a work in one of these “wrong people,” do we have people tuned to notice that change and advocate on their behalf? Do we have the courage or the margin to take a risk on someone working to rebuild trust?

About four years ago in my management career, I decided that I’m willing to take on one “project” at any given time. As long as I’m able to fully support the entire team, I’m willing to give special attention to one person who has had some issues identified in previous jobs or who is beginning to discover new leadership abilities. I’ve seen the problems that arise when a manager has more than one of these cases, and the department becomes known for being a collection of wounded souls or the manager becomes known for his soft heart and inability to turn anyone away.

Having said that, I love the story of David and his band of malcontents in 1 Samuel 22. While Saul was king and David an outcast, men who were in trouble, in debt or discontented gravitated to David’s leadership. When he became king, his “mighty men” took office and filled legitimate positions, such as bodyguard and special forces. Fiercely loyal to this man who took a risk on them, they went on to accomplish great feats like conquering Jerusalem and defeating giants alongside him. When David suggested one time that he’d love a drink from the well in his hometown, three of them busted through enemy lines just to get him a cup of water.

The leader who can spot potential and identify the work of the Holy Spirit in someone is a rare gem. Time and time again, God has used people like that to complete His work of redemption, giving the wrong person a second chance.

  • Jethro helped restore Moses after murder
  • Jesus gently forgave Peter and gave him a new mission
  • Ananias and Barnabas took a chance that Saul’s repentance was real
  • Barnabas took John Mark under his wing when Paul gave up on this young quitter

Who is filling that role in your church and in your organization? May God give us as leaders the eyes to see people the way He does and the courage to follow through on a hunch.

Let’s go back to my personal experience with being the wrong person. What hurt the most was when my boss’s boss admitted in my exit interview a feeling two years before that I was the wrong person for the role. I would have much preferred a courageous but tough decision to the frustration of two ill-fitting years.

Firing is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page quotes a statement from the Tribunal of the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana that leaders “care too much about people to let them perform at less than their level best.” I’ve blogged before about how managers should love and care for their staff, and it goes way beyond assuring employment. Have you considered that keeping a person in a job might be the least-caring thing you can do? That’s a hard thing to suggest in this economy.

What should set an organization like ours apart from many businesses is not that we don’t let people go; it’s how we let people go. First, we look them in the eye. As Steven Sample says “a man has to shoot his own horse.” He pointed out that president Nixon used to get someone else to tell a staff member he’d been fired. I remember the day I had to let a volunteer go. It was not a good situation, and I could easily have found business to do while security was escorting him to the exit. I chose to be there to show concern for him. Saying it wasn’t easy is an understatement. There was no way to avoid him at church! We had at least one followup conversation as he struggled to understand the reasons for my decision.

If caring for our staff means getting to know their families and situation outside of the office, we should show the same concern for their families and their unique situation as we transition them out of a job. We should show individualization with our approach to each one. We should go above and beyond in providing for their needs. I know there are laws that govern these things, but too often Christians use the laws as an excuse to do the minimum rather than the maximum. I think if a firing is done right, that staff person could one day become our biggest advocate. Seems crazy, but I’ve seen it happen in time.

Finally, remember that letting an underperforming or distracting team member go is a win for the others on your team. Not only do they see that you mean what you say about performance, but they know that your time has now been freed up to better support them. The wrong person takes huge amounts of management time and resources.

As Christian leaders, let’s set the bar high for our staff, and let’s set the bar high for our own performance as managers. Let’s show courage and concern to those who are performing and to those who are not.

I was just reading Acts 9, where Ananias pushes back on God’s request for him to go and lay hands on Saul. He basically tells God that Saul is clearly the wrong guy, and he strongly implies that he doesn’t want to work with him. He sounds like any number of managers I’ve met. Yet God responds,

Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.

To put it in Jim Collins’ language, Saul is the right person for this particular seat on God’s bus. It’s not because he shows any potential for the role, though he proves to have an amazing resume for the job. Saul is simply the wrong guy, and then God turns him around, and he’s the right guy. How on earth do we apply traditional hiring, development and firing principles when God is in the business of makeovers and repentances?

That’s the setting for my post today. When the wrong person is in a job, or there’s a staff member who just can’t find the right assignment, what should our organizational response be? And what should we be doing as leaders in the organization?

When it comes to staff, I think parachurch agencies have to find the right middle ground. We should not be as quick to fire as (many) businesses, whose business model doesn’t allow the patience to retool and develop their staff. We also should not be too slow to fire when firing is warranted. I think it’s safe to say most Christian organizations tend more to the latter fault. We give people “one more chance” as they continue to gush their contamination throughout our departments and organization.

The question we need to be asking is whether the person is wrong or the role is wrong. I have seen many people who are wrong for one role — indeed poisoning those around them — take a completely different tack and find a role they flourish in. Perhaps my own experience has shaped my approach to this issue. Three or four times in recent years, I have taken a risk on someone with bad performance appraisals and offered them a new position that I had a hunch would work out for them. Taking them out of the circumstances that had exposed their weaknesses and playing instead to their strengths made all the difference.

These cases give me incredible satisfaction. Why? Because someone did the same for me. While I trained for graphic design and worked in that field for 8-9 years, I’m a long way from my major today. I’ve changed careers several times in Wycliffe. What prompted my first big career change was a miserable couple of years in a bad role. As I lost trust with my boss, my discontent turned to frustration and depression. I look back on those years as a low point in my management career and in my followership career. I was poison in that department. It’s taken a while, but I now point fingers at myself before I point them at my circumstances or my boss.

I think that’s the first part of the answer: as an organization or as a manager, we should point fingers at ourselves first. I’m reminded of three points Chip and Dan Heath made in Switch about pursuing change in an organization. In short, they expose our tendency as leaders to fault the other person when change isn’t going well.

  • What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Have we been clear in our instructions? Have we been clear in communicating expectations? Have we provided the training this person needs?
  • What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Have we provided good performance management, support, encouragement and care for a staff member who is dry emotionally? Is the pace of change beyond what he can handle? Are we leading by force or engaging him in the vision of where we’re going?
  • What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The Heaths quote Stanford psychologist Lee Ross’s Fundamental Attribution Error: a deeply seated tendency “to attribute others’ behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (while generously doing the opposite with our own behavior).

So, leaders, when someone on your team is wrong for the job, take a look at yourself and the situation you have put them in. It may well be that the fault lies in your court.

You’ll notice my postings have really slowed down in recent weeks. That’s because thoughts on this topic don’t come readily to me. When I said I wanted to wrestle through these issues, I meant it. So I welcome your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Am I being too naive? Want to push back? Join the discussion!

I asked the question recently: In the world of social sectors, where should “parachurch” mission agencies like Wycliffe fall in the continuum between church and business? Let me try to outline the issues around the topic, and then next post we’ll look at how an organization like ours should act toward “the wrong people.”

One of my favorite metaphors for church is that it’s a hospital. Jesus himself said the healthy don’t need a doctor; those that need him are the sick, the poor and the needy. Those are the kinds of people the church is best suited to attract. The healthy aren’t the core audience, and certainly not the rich. Jesus said those are harder to corale for his kingdom than putting a camel through the eye of a needle.

A business exists to create value for its owners or shareholders. In order to do that well, it has to deliver a product or service of value to its customers, but a business doesn’t exist for its customers. At the end of the day, it has to make money.

Wycliffe is designed neither to heal the broken nor to make money. Its ultimate goal is to bring value to people in other parts of the world, but in order to do that, it must create value for that end with people and churches who are local. It therefore becomes a bridge, making connections between the two parties, and a broker, moving resources from one to the other and then communicating the effective use of those resources.

So, when the question is posed about how an organization like Wycliffe should act toward “the wrong people,” the response is complicated. If we have the wrong people on our bus, we will not effectively complete our mission. In that sense, we are like a business. We need to pursue sound strategies and good stewardship. On the other hand, few businesses recognize the role of the Holy Spirit, who is at the least a force multiplier, amplifying our meager resources and efforts. The Holy Spirit should play a huge role in our organization, as he does in each individual.

If you ask any business leader what his most important resource is, he’ll say it’s his people. With an organization whose members raise their own salaries, it may be even more so. Wycliffe is built on our staff and the relationships they bring with them. Personal relationships are our driving force, our economic engine. In addition, staff members not only serves the organization but their constituents: churches and individuals who sent them.

An organization built on a model where you screen heavily and only take in the top tier of candidates comes with a parallel value that you don’t let go of them easily or quickly. On the other hand, it comes with a value that you try to repackage and develop people for another role if they don’t work out in the initial one.

Let’s just say it’s complicated. Looking forward to further musings on the topic, and I welcome your thoughts as well.

This God who pursues us is always calling the wrong people onto a bus that isn’t expected to arrive.

Roxburgh and Romanuk in The Missional Leader are obviously trying to stir up some controversy. You don’t mess with Jim Collins! But they’re writing to a church audience while Collins clearly wrote Good to Great for a business audience. Even his monograph painted social sectors with a broad brush. Where do parachurch mission agencies like Wycliffe fall in the continuum? I know lots of people have opinions on that, but I don’t want to give a rash answer. I think it’s worthwhile to embrace the tension and wrestle with it for a week or two in this blog. Give me your thoughts as we go along.

What happens when the wrong people are in leadership? The Bible is full of examples of unlikely leaders. You know the obvious ones, so let’s look at the book of Judges for some more obscure ones:

  • Sampson, a guy with huge strengths and huge weaknesses. Probably had addiction problems, some anger problems and a taste for prostitutes.
  • Gideon, the “mighty warrior” who did everything he could to lay low and dodge leadership.
  • Barak, a guy appointed for leadership but who was more comfortable being in the #2 chair.
  • I think my favorite is Jephthah, the son of a prostitute who was chased away by his half-brothers until they got in a bind and asked him to be their leader. He was rash, unorthodox and creative in his leadership, but he also made some stupid decisions.

All of them had major flaws, but God used each of them in their times.

Perhaps the classic example is the twelve-seat bus that Jesus put together to transform the world and launch the church. He filled seats with a few hotheads, a handful of uneducated fishermen, a couple of dire enemies (a zealot and a tax collector) and a traitor. Not the team any leader I know would assemble. Roxburgh and Romanuk again:

Look at the ordinary people Jesus begins with; this is consistent with how God has always chosen to act…. What is present here is literally that in God’s economy the Spirit is among the people of God…. God’s future is among the regular, ordinary people of God. It’s not primarily in great leaders or experts but among the people, all those people most leaders believe don’t get it.

Ouch. I’m guilty of thinking some of these people don’t get it. I have a bent to engage with leaders but write off those who aren’t interested or gifted or called to lead.

So, how should a Christian organization engage with these tensions? On the one hand, we are stewards of God’s resources, with a huge responsibility to manage our assets well. We want good management and good leadership. On the other hand, we have the verses that say God’s power is strongest when we are weak. We have the examples that God can use a man like Peter — a disciple who’s quick to speak and slow to listen, a devotee who steps out of a boat in the middle of a lake, a coward who denies a friend at his neediest moment. The wild card is what the Holy Spirit can do to fill someone and make him useful. Acts 4 describes the transformation Peter went through and names two factors: he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he’d been with Jesus. I can’t say I’ve ever looked for those two criteria on a resume, though I have looked at previous failures and testing and how a person has grown — perhaps evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work.

There’s my challenge for you: in your hiring and development work, how are you looking for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work?