Larry Osborne. Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. $15.96 (Amazon). 176 pp.

Larry Osborne’s latest book, Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret, was intriguing to me because in my new pastoral role, I know I’ll be doing some innovating in several areas. Thankfully, Osborne’s book proved to be a wealth of insight.

Osborne wastes no time revealing the dirty little secret of innovation: most innovations fail (17). The rest of the book is Osborne’s attempt to help leaders not avoid failure altogether, but learn how to consistently take our people and organizations to new heights. Osborne wants to help readers “create an environment that fosters innovation and change rather than shutting it down” (26).

Leadership books like Osborne’s always bring up more questions than answers. There is simply so much wisdom that you cannot put it down and say, “Okay, I’ll put all of this into practice!” That takes years. It’s better to find a few big take-aways for immediate implementation. Here’s a handful I found helpful:

  1. Ask questions. In chapter 4, Osborne provides eight questions to ask in case an exit strategy is needed when an innovation is going to tank. In chapter 6, he invites leaders to consider their problems as opportunities for change by asking, “What frustrates me most?” and “What’s broken most?” (he also adds five other questions along these lines). The questions in these chapters may be worth the price of the book for some readers.
  2. Principles Not Policies. When making change, people are typically resistant. Rather than forcing them to adopt certain policies, help them adapt to guiding principles that will help change the culture.
  3. Avoid Committees. Osborne writes that realistic “vision rarely (if ever) comes out of a committee meeting” (155). In fact, groups of people tend toward harmony and maintenance, therefore change rarely comes from groups. It usually comes from the heart of a passionate leader.
  4. Find a Respected Champion. Whenever you innovate, you are going to encounter resistance (see #2 above). Because of this, you will need to find a respected champion, a person in the organization who has some relational capital and also believes in your vision and can communicate it to others (ch. 9).
  5. Learn from Another Tribe. We typically like to learn from people with whom we are most comfortable. If we’re pastors, we learn from others with the same theology. If we’re business leaders, we learn from CEOs in the same industry. But when we go outside our own tribe, we get a fresh perspective. Nevertheless, Osborne writes, remember to get permission from key leaders, otherwise what “you bring in from outside your tribe will be dead on arrival” (133).

With all that goodness on the table, there’s other things I would have liked Osborne to bring up, but here’s the most important one: God’s grace. Now, I know Osborne is not writing solely to pastors, nor is he writing a theology book. He is writing a practical leadership book for leaders in general. But he is a pastor, he makes it clear he has “theology degrees, not an MBA” (25), and he talks several times about a leader’s “God-given” ceiling. So why not say that successful innovation is a gift of God’s grace? The last chapter, “It’s Not About Us” would have been prime space to talk about that, rather than leaving a lasting legacy. You may work harder than the rest, but it is by the grace of God that you are what you are–Christian or not. 

I don’t agree with everything Osborne writes. In fact, as a pastor, I found myself more than a few times questioning some of Osborne’s innovation at his church in California. Nevertheless, this is a solid book, and I have no problem recommending it to you. If you’re a leader who is on the brink of innovation or in the midst of it, you’ll find a few nuggets to hold on to. If you’re a leader who seems to be in maintenance-mode and looking for the next breakthrough, it will be helpful for you. And what about you leaders-in-waiting? You might just find the motivation and wisdom you need to become the next serial innovator.

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