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 work, community, 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.