Innovation’s Dirty little Secret: a book review

When we consider the life and impact of innovators (such as the late Steve Jobs), we are amazed by their vision and the ideas they had. But Larry Osborne says that innovators have a secret: most innovations fail. Well, actually that isn’t much of a secret. You knew that already, right? What serial innovators are able to do is fail forward without letting their failures derail them. Osborne tells the tale of why serial innovators succeed where others crash and burn and describes how to foster a culture of innovation.

Osborne is a pastor of North Coast church in San Diego County, California (the book jacket identifies this as ‘one of the most innovative churches in America’).  Osborne draws on his own experience as a leader and the insights from business leadership literature.  Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail  is meant to be applicable to either a business or ecclesial context.  Osborne does not offer a business plan or detailed instructions on how to implement this in your church. What he does do is identify some of the crucial elements of success through innovation.

The book unfolds in seven parts. Part 1 is about exit strategies. Serial innovators do not succeed through backing high-risk innovations. They do not put all their resources into an idea that could fail. They experiment before implementing significant changes. They hedge their bets.  Part two talks about how successful innovation is not about being  ‘avant-garde’ and endlessly creative. It is about finding the right solutions to the problems you face in your organization. Part three describes the importance of knowing your mission (i.e. through a mission statement) and having a bias for action . Osborne also  advises finding a champion to make a straight path for you (a John the Baptist figure, preparing them for your innovation) and the importance of planning in pencil (holding plans loosely).

Part four discusses the problems which undermine innovation.  Osborne mentions four problems: the price of failure,  group-think, surveys, and past successes.  Failures are fatal to our success when we fail publicly, overhype our innovations, and fail repeatedly in the spotlight.  Osborne advises humility and tact in implementing innovations–creating an experimental culture without over promising results on every innovation. On the other hand, he does not trust group-think or surveys because they tends towards the status quo. Innovation  tends to be the product of one mind and lead people somewhere they’ve never been (or thought of).

Part five discusses other organizational and personal challenges to innovation. Leaders cannot grow an organization beyond their competency.  in order for new innovations to happen, structural changes, adjusted expectations, and new advisers will all play a part in helping your church or organization become what they

Part six discusses the necessity of vision for the success of your organization. Osborne contrasts ‘vision’ with ‘mission’ by describing vision as your detailed business plan (mission is a pithy statement which describes what you are about).  The final section, part seven, talks about creating a legacy of innovation that goes beyond ‘just us.’

Osborne offers practical advice for vision casting and implementing new programs and opportunities into the life of your church (or business). I am glad I read this book because I gained some insights and some language to describe innovation in ministry.  I didn’t necessarily think it was the most eye-opening business book. Most of the information in said in other business-leadership books (i.e. Jason Jennings, Jim Collins, Steve Covey, John Maxwell, etc). What Osborne does is relate leadership concepts and innovation to his role as pastor. This gives this book a broad appeal; however I felt that it was missing the hard data of some of the best business books and the theological reflection of the greatest church leadership books.

However  the take away for me is the emphasis on ‘small risks’ and ‘hedged bets.’ This seems to me to be good practical advice for success in leadership, ministry and life.  Culture is always changing and there is no one-size-fits-all ministry plan (or business plan). Change is inevitable and that means an effective witness means trying new things to reach a community. The lab-learning small risks allows for the opportunity to discover which innovations will be impactful. This will be a good book to read and discuss as a church leadership team.  I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross-Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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