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.

Because They’re Not Fair You See!: A Book Review

Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of OverZealous Faith by Larry Osborne

A Christian camp song I loved as a child, I Just Want to Be a Sheep, had a verse with these words:

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

Because they’re not Fair You See,

I don’t want to be a Pharisee.

And indeed, nobody wants to be a Pharisee. And yet, for those of us who take the Bible and our Christian duty seriously, it is so easy to become one.  When we become overzealous and ‘biblically unaligned,’  our fervent desire to follow God makes us ‘jerks for Jesus.’  We become legalists, hypocrites and we hoist impossible standards on our neighbors.  We might not mean to do it, but we do. We are “Accidental Pharisees.”

Author and Pastor Larry Osborne has written this book to help us stop being Pharisees. The thing is the Pharisees themselves didn’t start out trying to be ‘Pharisees’ in the sense we use the term today. These were people who cared about following the Bible and moral formation.  They had lots of rules and regulations because they wanted to make sure their behavior was pleasing to God, but along the way they lost sight of God’s grace.  Osborne examines the  ways that we too can get ourselves offtrack by emphasizing having right behavior or right theology. Not that these things aren’t important, but when you look at the type of people Jesus loved, accepted, justified and restored, it wasn’t because of what they did, but because of his  mercy and love. Osborne helps us cut through our own attempts to justify ourselves.

The book is divided into seven parts. In part one, Osborne introduces the concept of ‘accidental pharisees’ and provides a case study of Joseph of Arimathia (the guy whose tomb Jesus was buried in, a Pharisee and ‘secret disciple’).  While we would be tempted to not number Joseph among the disciples for his failure to stand up for Christ before the Sanhedrin, he is described as a disciple in the gospels.

In the rest of the book Osborne describes the characteristics of of our pharisee-ism. In part two he describes the sin of pride.  We are all tempted to compare ourselves to others, and see their faults more clearly than we see our own (Log-Eye disease).  In  part three, he discusses exclusivity and the way that we want to ‘thin the heard’ and call people to greater commitment is antithetical to the gospel of grace. In part four, Osborne shows how our desire to have ‘litmus tests’ to prove that we are ‘real Christians’ shows how we are legalists who rely on our own righteousness (rather than God’s mercy).  Part five discusses our tendency to ‘idolize the past’ and the ways in which our idealism distorts reality. In part six, Osborne shows how we confuse unity with uniformity and demand other Christians conform with our theology and peculiar cultural distinctives.  In part seven, Osborne discusses how the way we compare ourselves to others cause us to either feel arrogant because we got it together and other people don’t or guilty because other people are gifted in ways that we are not. He also discusses the ways in which we Christians have a tendency to judge one another for the ways we handle money (not being good stewards, not being generous enough, etc).

Each of the seven parts of this book concludes with discussion questions which would be useful in a small group discussion (over seven weeks) or for personal reflection. This is the sort of book that demands that you ask hard questions about the condition of your own heart and attitude. More than once I felt that Osborne had rightly named my sin–my self justification and judgmental attitudes.  This is a book that you should read prayerfully, and with a willingness to engage in some self examination.

In a couple of places I felt like Osborne overstates his case and marginalizes Biblical texts which exhort us to our Christian duty. However, what he writes here is a good corrective and I loved the ways in which he commends us to rest in God’s grace rather than the burden of obedience. There is something right about what Osborne is saying even if he runs the risk of minimizing some of the Christian call to action. We are recipients of God’s grace before we are missional activists. I like that Osborne challenges me to make sure my gospel presentation rests on the mercy of God and that everyone is included. Still part of me worries that he doesn’t emphasize enough the need to ‘count the cost’ and take up our cross and following Jesus.’ Certainly, I am a pharisee and I need to be called to account for it. There is a such thing as the scandal of grace and I can’t earn my salvation. On the other hand, I am called to a life of discipleship which demands something from me.  In several places in this book, I wrote in the margins, “Yes, but . . .”.

None of this is to say I didn’t like the book, or that I don’t warmly commend it. I think this is the sort of book which we all need to read and we need to watch out for the ways in which we can fall into exclusivity, pride and legalism. This book is well worth reading. May God use it to make us disciples who are humble, hospitable and gracious to one another.

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