Innovation, a Messy World, and Purpose

Innovation, a Messy World, and Purpose

In his book, A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters offers a very insightful and valuable perspective of innovation and order. Chapter 3 is entitled “The Mythology of Innovation” and Peters writes:

Innovation is “always messy, unpredictable, and very much affected by the determined champions…we must learn to design organizations [of every stripe] that take into account, explicitly, the irreducible sloppiness of the process and take advantage of it, rather than systems and organizations that attempt to fight it…As a friend at General Electric says, ‘When you go through this inordinately messy, sloppy, fouled-up, mucked-up seven year process of bringing a new product to market, you say to yourself at the very end, “Any idiot could have done it better than that! Let’s get organized for the next round.” And in that single phrase, “Let’s get organized for the next round,” lie the seeds of subsequent disaster.'”

“It is a messy world…If it is a messy world, the only way to proceed is by constant experimentation: ‘Don’t just stand there, do something.’ If constant experimentation is the only antidote to a messy world, we need experimenters — or champions (skunks). And if we need champions…the most effective environment for champions is almost always an abundance of skunkworks, those small off-line bands of mavericks that are the hallmark of innovative organizations. Finally, and this is the $64,000 issue: if the messy-world-experiment-champion-skunkwork paradigm makes sense, then we need to create a climate. that induces all the above to occur — a climate that nurtures and makes heroes of experimenters and champions.”

It is 38 years since A Passion was published in 1985 and it is more keenly relevant and insightful than before.

For most of the last decade, I have been taken with the matter of what it looks like to to apply a truly Christian worldview to our understanding of organizations and leadership. Over the years, I have grown increasingly convinced that a biblical theology of creation must be our starting point for thinking about leadership within organizations. The narrative of creation in the book of Genesis — regardless of how one argues to interpret chapter 1 — clearly demonstrates that the concept of work and organization is integral to God’s created order. In other words, the impulse to create organizations and pursue work or activities together in a systematic fashion is not a human invention, but one found in the very DNA of the created order.

Out of this has grown the a new project: “A Framework for Redemptive Organizational Leadership,” a way of thinking comprehensively and ontologically about the fundamental nature, purpose, and activity of organizations, and the subsequent groups of processes required for those purposes to flourish. Those fundamental, deep purposes are workcommunity, and stewardship. These three things are the essence of what makes an organization an organization.

  • Work is activity that provides for needs and brings for enjoyment and beauty. Vision, creativity, and productivity are essential keywords.
  • Community is the experience of human freedom while sharing in genuine fellowship and purposeful work. Collaboration, trust, and freedom are essential keywords.
    Stewardship is the responsible management of resources so as to care for others and ensure sustainability. Accountability and entrepreneurialism are essential keywords.

Tom Peter’s description of the nature and importance of messy innovation harmonizes with this framework’s view of these fundamental, deep purposes of any organization. The combination of creativity, vision, productivity, collaboration, freedom, and entrepreneurialism are found in and required for a “messy-world-experiment-champion-skunkwork paradigm.”

This kind of paradigm requires a certain level of trust, mutual respect, freedom for growth and purpose, and a healthy embrace of risk-taking driven by a strong sense of values and purpose. A team or organization that fosters such a climate is beginning to tap into the core of what it means to be a flourishing, healthy organization.

As human beings made in the image of God, we all long to be a part of a community or team where this kind of messy, life-changing innovation is the norm.

Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions

“What builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the RIGHT questions.” Ed Schein in Humble Inquiry. Machiavelli’s The Prince, written centuries before organizational development was a thing, noted that a great prince must “certainly be a great asker of questions.”

What are the RIGHT questions? They are the kinds of questions that

  1. push us beyond obvious & preconceived answers;
  2. show humility on the part of the asker;
  3. demonstrate genuine curiosity in the thoughts and ideas of others;
  4. foster an environment of collaborative trust;
  5. invite honesty and truthfulness, however unpleasant the message;
  6. generate a range of ideas that is both wide and deep; and,
  7. cause us to seek out new information or consider new perspectives.

When facing change, challenge, or crisis, the temptation is to try to solve the problem as quickly and cheaply as possible, usually involving some form of imitation where we find the company that looks to be successful and try to copy what they do. This innate instinct to “institutional isomorphism” (the tendency in an industry for organizations to all look essentially alike) has given rise to an enormous industry of how-to books, conferences, and expert consultants.

Yet the most powerful ingredient for dynamic organizational change and success is everywhere we look: asking the right questions and taking time to listen well. In many cases, ask enough of the right questions in the right way and the solutions to problems become self-evident.

A leader who has a strong sense of curiosity and humble interest in the experiences, ideas, and needs of others will unleash an environment of creativity, trust, innovation, and healthy engagement like nothing else can.

Integrated Learning Model – 2016

Integrated Learning Model – 2016

Last August, I published a simple model for helping students engage in better synthesis and integrate scholarly thought, personal experience, and biblical truth & Christian wisdom into discussion forums and academic writing. I am convinced these three domains represent distinct but crucial arenas essential for vibrant Christian higher education. The model labels these as Academic/Scholarly, Practical/Experiential, and Biblical/Spiritual.

The model has now been updated to a new, improved version based on experiences of several of our faculty using it this last year in OKWU’s adult degree programs. This new 2016 version is much more visually interesting and cleaner. It also now includes a separate tool for learning to use it in critical thinking, asking good learning questions, class discussion, or reflective writing and analysis.

Original model

Original model

New updated version

New updated version

View the full model document here.

It can be tempting to read this as a variation on the head/heart/hands motif often used in Christian ed and discipleship, but it isn’t for the simple fact that cognition, emotion/belief, and behavior are intrinsic in all 3 domains independent of the other. Rather, each of the three dimensions is differentiated on the raw ingredients and kind of learning that happens in that domain. The model emphasizes that the best learning occurs where these three meet.

Academic/Scholarly is more than merely cognition and the mental thinking processes involved in learning. It relates to objective data, research, information, the raw “content” around which learning and practice happen. It emphasizes that learning, belief, and practice is and ought to be more than one’s own preferences or inclinations, that learning must be more than subjective affirmation or experience.

Practical/Experiential is more than just behavior or action. It focuses instead on the skills, systems, processes, and environment in which learning and life are lived out and understanding or assessing one’s own experiences within that environment. It emphasizes that knowledge and learning must ultimately be useful to an appropriate end — thought I vehemently oppose utilitarianism or functionalism as a base educational philosophy — and that it can or ought to shape the way we act.

Biblical/Spiritual is more than just the affective domain of value or emotion, though those are certainly vital. It emphasizes the role of one’s worldview and fundamental value systems as the foundational lenses through which learning and behavior are often governed. It deals with the underlying ethical questions about the nature of truth and right/wrong in both intellectual and behavioral endeavor.



Simple Model for Content Areas of Good Learning (infographic)

Simple Model for Content Areas of Good Learning (infographic)

A new idea I am working on. This is a tool for sharing with students in online courses to help better integrate scholarly thought, personal experience, and biblical truth & Christian wisdom into discussion forums and academic writing. I am wanting to help students come at this kind of classroom work in three ways:

  1. the academic/theoretical side (what does research, history, philosophy tell us),
  2. the practical/experience side (what have you encountered in your life), and
  3. the spiritual/faith side (what does Scripture and Christian faith call us to be like).

Not too sure about the title, but I’m more focused on the substance at the moment. If anybody has developed something similar, I’d love to hear about it and see where I could learn.



Francis Asbury and Kenotic Leadership

Francis Asbury and Kenotic Leadership

From an upcoming book chapter on the leadership of Francis Asbury I am working on for an anthology in Wesleyan leadership. The working title of the whole chapter is “Imitating Christ: The Leadership of Francis Asbury”. Francis Asbury’s leadership corresponds to a “mimetic model” of Christian leadership built around kenosis, servanthood, humility, embracing humanity, and obedience. This is a short section on kenosis.



Phil. 2:6-7: “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing”

The kenosis of Christ is a voluntary divestiture of the privileges of his divine office for the sake of overcoming the separation between God and man. In the hymn, the self-emptying of Christ climaxes in Christ’s death on the cross. Christian leaders who imitate Christ voluntarily pour themselves out in sacrifice to the ones they are called to lead. Few contemporary leaders embody a posture of self-sacrifice and self-emptying better than Asbury. “My soul thirsteth for holiness in myself and others,” Asbury’s journal records, “…if my whole body…could labor and suffer, they should freely be given up for God and for souls” (1:456).

circuitridersAsbury lived his entire life in monastic fashion, never taking more a modest annual salary. Aside from what was needed for his frugal expenses, he gave away most of what he received. He never had a regular home and owned only what little he could carry in saddlebags. “I will live and die a poor man,” he wrote in 1800. At his death, he had saved two thousand dollars, all of which he left to the church. Asbury held a dim view of preachers who sought to “show the effects [of wealth]…by lording it over their poorer neighbors and by securing to themselves all the offices of profit or honor” (1:577). In one episode illustrative of a constant habit, a group of preachers at a conference in Tennessee “were in want and could not suit themselves; so I parted with my watch, my coat, and my shirt” (2:517).

Within weeks of his arrival in America, Asbury concluded, “my brethren seem unwilling to leave the cities, but I think I will show them the way.” In a time when most clergy and their superiors confined themselves to the comforts of city life, Asbury did just the opposite, pursuing both the unreached and embracing the uncomfortable. Across forty five years of ministry, he rode on average five or six thousand miles a year across rugged terrain crossing the Appalachian mountains over sixty times on poor roads and through all kinds of weather. He quickly earned the trust of the preachers because they were never asked by him to go to places or endure hardship in going that he himself was not experiencing. He truly did “show them the way.”

Asbury viewed leadership in terms of suffering and sacrifice. He suffered from chronic health problems like asthma and rheumatism, as well as the effects of poor diet, lack of sleep, emotional distress, extreme physical exposure, and ill-informed medical treatments. As a result, Asbury was frequently violently ill or in great pain. But he saw suffering as a necessary part of the calling, so he doggedly pressed on, noting in his journal, “it is only on condition that we suffer with him, that we shall also reign with him.” (1:181). Asbury literally sacrificed his physical health for the sake of his calling and office.

Because of this self-sacrificing posture and the willingness to give himself so fully to the work no matter the cost, his contemporaries revered Asbury as the ultimate example of the Methodist circuit-riding preacher.

College Professors in the Academy & Abbey

College Professors in the Academy & Abbey

Is it possible for a culture to fill its mind while simultaneously emptying its soul? I believe that is the looming challenge facing higher education. Digital culture has put a world of knowledge at our fingertips…literally. But the most fundamental concern of education remains fixed and unchanged. How do we use the knowledge in the right way? In a world of on-demand knowledge, the college professor matters now more than ever before. But the role of the college professor is also changing.