Disruptive innovation or just disruptive?

In a time when congregations and related institutions need to experiment to make the work more sustainable, we need to discern which innovations to nurture. The discernment process starts with a simple question: Why?

Innovation is critical for a congregation or related institution to accomplish its mission in the 21st century. A lot of ink has been spilled on the importance of considering disruptive innovation. But is every disruptive idea an innovation? Are some ideas just disruptive?

“Disruptive innovation” is Clayton Christensen’s theory of how organizations evolve (and devolve) in response to change. Christensen is a famous Harvard Business School professor who has applied this theory to changes in education, technology, journalism, consulting and more. Faith & Leadership has featured the term in a series of five articles by a bishop and two seminary leaders. I have written about it several times. We were lucky to interview Christensen in 2013.

I am a believer in the importance of disruptive innovation (and in its less discussed counterpart, sustaining innovation). But institutions that want to support disruptive innovation need some way to distinguish the most promising ideas from ones that are crazy.

Marlon Hall and I were asked by participants in Denominational Leadership to outline a process for discerning the differences. Marlon, a fellow at Leadership Education, is a pastor, filmmaker and social innovator in Houston who embodies disruptive innovation.

These questions to guide the discernment process seem important to us:

  • Why does the innovator want to do this innovation? How much does the innovation have to do with the innovator being important? Marlon calls exploring this issue “the bottom why.”
  • Who will be served or involved? What research has been conducted with the audiences, and what are the observations? How does this innovation meet deep needs?
  • Who are the other leaders? Disruptive innovation is a team activity; sponsors need to meet and be part of the team.
  • What is the plan? How will we know what is effective and what is not?
  • What resources are needed to support the innovation and at what time?

Most innovations fail. Sponsoring disruptive innovation means the institution has to tolerate risk and have a method for learning from failure. Getting the answers to these questions is not about “insuring” success.

We believe that the innovation is worth trying the more the “why” of it is aligned with the “why” of God’s reign. Sin is a reality, among innovators and established institutions alike. One of the most pressing questions in discerning which innovations to nurture is identifying the temptations inherent in the ideas and how to be accountable in the midst of those temptations.

There is a lot at stake for congregations and Christian institutions with these issues of innovation.

Disruptive innovations from Christensen’s perspective are those innovations that point the way to new economic models. We need to develop those new models. The virtuous cycles that have supported so many of us have collapsed.

This summer I wrote that attendance in weekly worship no longer contributes to sustaining congregations in the ways that it once did. More than 20,000 readers looked at that post. We all know that things are not the same, but it is not clear what to do about it. Disruptive innovations are the experiments that we need to develop new economic models that include virtuous cycles that make the work more sustainable.

How will you decide which disruptive innovations to give your life to? Will you support some or lead some? How will the rest of us learn from the success and failure?