Why Don’t Good Ideas Fly?

What Youth Ministry Can Learn from Innovation Research

Brad M. Griffin | Dec 13, 2005

If you serve in youth ministry, odds are you’re an innovator. Not convinced? When’s the last time you overhauled your small group approach, added a creative twist to “broom hockey” and ended up with your group’s all-time favorite game, or launched a new teaching series with a title like “tongue tricks”? If that’s not you, have you ever tried to convince your senior pastor to introduce new methods, rituals, or content into the standard way of “doing worship” in your church?

OK, maybe none of those apply to you, but you’re starting to get the point: youth ministry (or ministry of any kind, really!) requires an innovative spirit. The problem is that few of us have ever really been trained in effective innovation practices. We often end up frustrated in our attempts to introduce new ministry tools, programs, or philosophies not because they aren’t good, but because we make our pitch in the wrong places, at the wrong times, and to the wrong people. Let’s face it: new ideas usually take a while to catch on, even when they are great ideas. Why is this so?

Marketers, of course, are very interested in the answers to this question. After a recent high-end executives meeting on innovations, Clorox VP Mary Jo Cook commented, “As you might imagine, the way Nike launches high-end urban-cool shoes is really different from the way I launch a Clorox toilet wand. But there are things Nike does with high-end urban-cool shoes that, if I twisted a little bit, I could possibly make work for the Clorox toilet wand.” [[http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/nov2005/id20051102_204917.htm]] If this is true for Nike and Clorox, what principles hold true for youth ministry? While we have to be careful not to get all of our wisdom from the marketing world (a major understatement!), we can certainly assess what God-given truths are revealed through their efforts.

A little over a year ago, the “Father” of innovation theory passed away after a 47-year career in researching and teaching around the world. Everett Rogers left a legacy across the span of communication theory, organizational leadership, and even humanitarian efforts against the spread of AIDS in developing countries. [[http://www.unm.edu/~market/cgi-bin/archives/000359.html#more, accessed November 4, 2005.]] In 1962 he published landmark research in his Diffusion of Innovations, a book that was updated for the fifth time a year before his death. Drawing on Gabriel Tarde’s “laws of imitation,” Rogers pioneered research into the questions surrounding innovation and its diffusion, or take-off rate. Formally, diffusion is understood as “the process in which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.” [[Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed. (New York: Free Press, 2003 [orig. 1962]), 5.]] How does this work?

Better yet, we’ll start with how it doesn’t work, because many of us are more familiar with that scenario. A poignant example of failed diffusion is the keyboard I’m using to write this: the QWERTY keyboard. Did you know that your keyboard is intentionally inefficient and awkward? That’s right: it’s hard on your body on purpose. It takes twice as long to learn as it should, our fingers and wrist tendons work over twenty times harder than necessary, and yet no one has been able to conquer the QWERTY’s domination (look at your keyboard right now for the proof). Why is that?

In 1873 Christopher Latham Sholes “anti-engineered” the typewriter to slow down typists. The old-design type bars would often jam together as certain keys were struck in succession. By redesigning the keyboard and making common letter sequences more awkward, Sholes successfully frustrated the next 130 years worth of typists, slowing down progress and increasing hand and wrist problems. All of this could have changed in the 1930s, when the research-based Dvorak keyboard was introduced. Ten years of analysis produced a keyboard on which the amount of work performed by each finger matches its respective skill and strength, and a hand-alternation pattern is established by the letter arrangement. 70% of typing is done on the neutral home row, as opposed to only 32% on the QWERTY keyboard.

“Brilliant!” you say. “Where can I get one?” Well, if you caught that 1930’s date above, you know there’s bad news. NO ONE uses the Dvorak keyboard. Even though it has been approved as an alternative design, it’s nearly impossible to find one being produced. Who’s holding us back here? You’ve probably guessed this one, too: manufacturers, stores, typing teachers, even typists themselves! About a week’s training would be necessary to make the shift to learning a new keyboarding pattern, and no one has yet been willing to invest that into their business or education. [[Ibid, 8-11.]]

So let’s start with this: Do not feel bad if your new ideas have bombed before. You are certainly not alone, and sometimes even “great” innovations like the Dvorak keyboard are never adopted. Tragically, even when innovations in much more serious areas (like AIDS prevention, clean water initiatives in developing countries, and safety improvements) hold life-giving potential, the wrong introduction and implementation can lead to the death of those innovations. In contrast, learning basic principles of the diffusion of innovations can take us a long way in preventing shut-down. Often in the Church we seem to think that once we have a great idea from the Holy Spirit, that thing must succeed because “God is behind it.” From there we take very little notice of the ways human beings interact with each other and with great ideas – even God’s great ideas! Understanding the dynamics involved in facilitating change can go a long way in helping us be good stewards of those ideas God gives us. The following principles aren’t fool-proof, but they do come out of nearly fifty years of cross-disciplinary and international research.

According to Rogers and numerous others, diffusion involves four elements: 1) the innovation itself; 2) the communication channels used; 3) time; and 4) the social system. [[Ibid,11.]]

First, an innovation is anything perceived as new – an idea, practice, or object – whether it’s actually new or not. [[Ibid,12.]]

In order to want to “adopt” (accept and start using/practicing) an innovation, people usually have to perceive that innovation as:

  1. Having some degree of advantage over the current idea. (Why is this keyboard better?)
  2. Being compatible with what they are used to. (How similar is it to the one I use now?)
  3. Not too complex or hard to pick up. (How much is required of me to learn this?)
  4. Able to be experimented with on a trial basis. (Can I take one home for a day or two?)
  5. Visible/observable. (Will my coworkers and boss notice the difference in my work if I change keyboards?)

Innovations bearing these five characteristics have been proven to lead to faster adoption (the term for picking up an innovation), especially when the first two factors are strong. [[Ibid,17, 240-266.]] With our Dvorak keyboard example, the primary reasons for failed adoption have been its lack of perceived compatibility and a fear that it would be too complex for a whole society to switch to learning a new method of typing.

Second, the ways communication channels are used to get the word out about a new idea make a significant difference. While mass media or broad attempts at gaining popularity are often our knee-jerk response, in reality most people pick up something new because of a relationship with another person who has already adopted the innovation. Diffusion is intensely social, requiring direct and authentic interpersonal communication. [[Ibid,19.]]

As we’ve all experienced, change takes time. Sometimes this feels especially true in local church ministry. A decision to change involves a process of knowledge (acquiring information), persuasion (developing an attitude about an innovation), decision, implementation, and confirmation – from hearing about the innovation all the way to reinforcing a final decision to accept the change. [[Ibid, 169.]] Refusing to acknowledge this need for process and time can sink an idea relatively quickly (a lesson we could stand to remember more often in front of our church boards). The general principle: don’t rush. Give yourself adequate time to make sure everyone involved has the right information they need and can pace through the processes of deciding and working out a change.

Although the actual amount of time for complete adoption varies from innovation to innovation, the distribution of the adoption rate for successful innovations tends to form an S-shaped curve. The pattern follows that only a few people try the initial innovation but it slowly grows as other individuals receive good feedback from the first group. Then those folks quickly jump on the bandwagon, causing the graph to jump up rapidly (forming the middle of the S). Eventually, the graph levels off as most people have adopted the innovation and only a few remain to either pick it up or reject it. [[Ibid, 272.]]

How do you know who will be the first to try your innovation and who might offer resistance? While this is somewhat unpredictable with so many variables at stake, clues can be found by studying your social system. Below are research-identified characteristics of the primary types of “product adopters” – folks who tend to pick up new ideas quickly, and those who take their time or even run the other way. Within a typical social system, the breakdown tends to be as follows:

  1. Innovators (2.5%) – venturesome; typically take risks by adopting new ideas and guard the flow of ideas into the community. Due to their tendency to move beyond the norms of a given society, innovators are not normally opinion leaders (those who frequently influence others’ behavior and/or attitudes).
  2. Early adopters (13.5%) - respected and valued members of the society, they are often opinion leaders. Seen in a social system as the “person to check with” about a change.
  3. Early majority (34%) – deliberate decision-makers, usually well-connected socially but not opinion leaders; weigh the decision for a longer time than early adopters.
  4. Late majority (34%) - skeptical, traditional, cautiously wait for uncertainty to be removed. These folks need to feel really safe about a change before they will embrace it.
  5. Laggards (16%) – the traditionals, who are the last group to adopt an innovation (if they adopt it at all). They are typically suspicious of change agents and innovations alike, but this may be due to dysfunctions in the system as much as it may be a personal preference for holding on to the old. [[Ibid, 282-285.]]

As ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20) we must prayerfully consider how best to care for those in our ministry who fall into each of these categories. How will our proposed change impact the 40-year-old single mom in our church, and how can we listen to her concerns in a way that is non-manipulative? If adopting the innovation really isn’t in the best interests of her family, what are we going to do about it, and how will we handle the situation with humility and grace? Youth pastors are not known for winsomeness and tact, let alone grace for “late adopters”. Truth is, opinion leaders matter, and so do laggards. [[See Matthew 19:30 for a radical example of this in Jesus’ teaching: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” How does this shed light on the value of “laggards” in the kingdom?]] Our actions and efforts should reflect deep commitment to this belief.

Making the Connection: The Difference You Make as the Change Agent

You First

So why is it that some change agents have better success at getting people to pick up an innovation than others? Several research-based factors seem to be at play here, and a few directly relate to youth ministry:

1. The amount of effort – and time – spent in communication with folks makes a big difference. Simply put, the more you get the message out, the more likely people are to like that message!

2. Caring more about the people than the innovation you’re trying to get them to adopt increases the chances that they’ll actually adopt it!

3. Felt needs matter. If you do not clearly communicate why your idea is valuable to someone (not a cheap anxiety-producing sell, but a genuine fit with their needs), they are not likely to be convinced on their own.

4. Empathy – putting yourself in someone else’s role – is positively correlated with adoption success. [[Everett Rogers, 373-377.]]

Find a Champion

Who’s cheering you on? Hopefully you have some die-hard ministry supporters in your church: the ones who encourage you in public, and seem to always find a way to slip in a positive word about what you’re doing at just the right times and places. But what about a champion (or two!) for that new idea you have for restructuring your student leadership approach? Research shows that having at least one champion – a charismatic lover of the idea who will help overcome resistance within the social system – makes a significant difference in an innovation’s success. [[Ibid, 414.]] A champion doesn’t have to be a “power broker” or top leader in the church. They just have to be someone who has good interpersonal skills and can effectively be a link between communication channels and groups. So, having your senior pastor behind you is great, but it could be equally great if you have someone like Janice behind you.

Janice was a youth ministry volunteer on our team who had her hands in several other ministries as well. She had survived the valuable life experience of raising two teenagers, and had lived in the same community where the church was located for many years. Beyond that, she was just plain likeable. Janice rarely wanted to be an up-front leader, but a lot of people listened to her (largely because she was wise, godly, and frank enough to cut to the real issues when no one else had the guts). Talk about a champion! If we were making a change in our ministry, I always made sure that Janice was on board – primarily because I really valued her input in shaping those changes, but also because I knew others would respond if Janice stood beside the idea. A champion is a must. If you can’t find a champion, you either need to keep praying and waiting for God’s timing, or revisit the innovation itself and figure out what may need to be adjusted.

Be the Gatekeeper

“Gatekeeping” is a term for controlling the flow of messages through communication channels. [[Ibid, 155.]] Given the incredible importance of involving the right people at the right times in order to clearly communicate our ideas, gatekeeping becomes a skill we must consciously practice and develop. Most of us are so anxious to get our great ideas going that we forget about the need to exercise self-control and learn when to hold our tongues. Should you pitch your idea to the chair of the church board before you’ve spoken with the key volunteers in your ministry? Should your lead pastor be the first or last person to know about your major program overhaul? These sound like no-brainers, but the answers aren’t often simple, and they require nuancing for each situation. Including some forethought can save you a communication bog-down midway through your process.

A few key questions to ask include: Who are the decision-makers impacted by this change? Who are the people most invested in and most affected by the change (What will be the implications for parents if we increase our regular programming by half an hour? Who needs to be part of that decision process?). Take some time to think through – with a team – all the possible ramifications in every area of your ministry, and who should be receiving information at which points in the process. You may or may not need a more formal “launch plan,” but even little changes require good communication flow. Be the gatekeeper, or find someone else who can do it well and hand over the responsibility.

Innovation Pitfalls

Before you start an innovation rampage through your ministry, a few cautions are appropriate:

1. Newer is not always better. Our American “throwaway society” operates on a premise of “newer is better.” We live out a pro-innovation bias. While this mantra drives marketing, business, media, and the Church, as servants of the Kingdom of God we must take a step back and evaluate our drivenness for the New. Theologically, we believe our God is the One who is making all things new, who is doing a new thing, and who is inviting us to sing a new song (all scriptural presuppositions [[Revelation 21:5, Isaiah 43:19, and Ps. 40:3. See also Isa. 42:9-10, 48:6-7, 65:17ff; Ez. 36:26; Mat. 9:16-17/Mk. 2:21-22/Lk. 5:36-39; Lk. 22:20; 2 Cor. 5:17.]] ). God is obviously the innovator par excellence. Just take a look around you! It follows that innovating is one of the ways we bear God’s image. However, this does not mean tossing out a connectedness with the old, nor does it mean we can ever un-root ourselves from our story (though at times we may certainly want to try!). Innovation in ministry must be measured by motives, and carefully weighed against the standards of the scriptural purposes of the Church – for instance, that all might be brought to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:13).

2. Consider the Consequences. “Change agents generally give little attention to consequences.” [[Ibid, 436.]] As innovators, we usually assume that whatever we are trying to get people to pick up is going to have a positive impact on them. But will it really? There is certainly no foolproof method for knowing what the consequences will be because they might be unforeseen or indirect. Yet, many negative consequences can be avoided by careful forethought. Is this change good news for everyone, or only certain people in our ministry? Will moving small groups to a different night of the week exclude certain students or leaders? What difference might it make if we introduce a regular program that requires additional financial costs from students and their families?

3. This is not a game. Be wary of falling into “playing” church politics. Innovation diffusion can become political, but it need not be so by default. Identifying decision makers or likely “early adopters” does not imply a slick strategy of working the church political system. It does mean being a wise and shrewd steward of your very limited time and resources (including good ideas!), and understanding the dynamics of social systems. Learning to be an effective communicator is not anti-biblical. In fact, a critical place to begin any innovation diffusion process is prayer and testing against the Good News as revealed through scripture. If we believe our new ideas are furthering God’s Kingdom, we can certainly take the time to pray about how God might use us as an effective – and non-manipulative – communication channel for passing those ideas along in the best way possible.

4. Release control. One of the key principles of the innovation process is re-invention. [[Ibid, 186.]] As others take an idea and work with it, adaptations are bound to happen. Our initial response as the one who “owns” the innovation is to shut this down or discourage it. But what are our motives here? Rarely in ministry does someone create a plan or program that works perfectly without adjustments. If your small group leaders are modifying your questions or shifting their processes in order to meet the developing needs of their kids, celebrate their re-inventions!! Even better, welcome regular input for how various leaders are adapting material, and pass it on to the rest of your team. Releasing control of an innovation allows God to work through as many other channels as possible to do the refining for you.

We in youth ministry have a lot to learn from innovation research. While we can easily become manipulators, our call is to be wise stewards of what God has entrusted to our care: great kids, great adults, great communities, and great ideas. All of those are a little – or a lot – broken, and so are we. The beauty is watching “the God of the new” bring His innovations to fruition in our midst. While God may not always operate according to the principles of innovation theory, humans usually do. Understanding them might just make us more willing partners to recognize and go forward with the next innovation God has in store for our ministries!

Action Points:

  • Think back over your innovations in youth ministry – both those that “failed” and those that “succeeded”. Can you identify any of the principles of innovation that shed new light on what happened? What can you learn and implement for next time?
  • How do you predict whether or not an innovation is going to be adopted in your ministry? How could the characteristics of innovations (degree of advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability) figure into your team’s considerations?
  • What level of care and attention are you giving to folks in each of the adopter categories, from innovators to laggards? In your efforts to “sell” others on your ideas, do you devalue anyone by either lack of attention or over-attention?
  • Which of the pitfalls listed above tend to trip you up? What can you do this month to intentionally avoid or counterbalance that tendency? How might that change others’ impressions of you as an innovator?
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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