Innovation and the Adjacent Possible

My wife Vickie and I watch the HBO series The Newsroom. In a recent episode vignettes pointed to the challenges of innovation. In one vignette the news business is up for sale by the holding company and is set to be purchased by an innovative, creative, boundary-less financier half the age of the current director. The new owner challenges the director to see everyone as a news source and every cell phone and Instagram message as a possibility for information. The director believes that the art and truthfulness of pure journalism will be lost in the continuous impulse of new information. In this episode the director yells at the soon to be new owner and storms out of the room. Certainly one response to change and innovation.

The second vignette focuses on a couple both having worked for the network news. One person was fired for posting a tweet that was damaging to the networks image. While tweeting happened all the time, the message was racist and derogatory and resulted in her firing. At the same time, that same tweet brings several news agencies her way in hopes that she will join them and write about what is happening now. She agrees. The couple fight about what is real news and what is simply feeding the stimulation craze of the 21st century. She writes an article about their relationship and posts that for all to read. The action brings them to part ways for now. In this case within a younger generation is encapsulated the challenge of communicating news and information: well researched or simply what’s unfolding? Depth or surface? Guarded or transparent? Tradition or culture?

These vignettes speak to our struggles with change, innovation, and vitality within our churches. In these stories there was an attempt made to bring immediate resolution to current pressing issues which involved radical departures from previously understood ways of operating. Things were torn down before things could be built up and the results were emotional chaos, unnecessary pain and the tearing down of people.

Let’s look at innovation. Innovation is often viewed as change that disregards the current life of an organization. Actually, innovation only takes place in a context and that context is wherever the organization, and in this case the church, exists which is made up of the current rhythm of the parish including people, worship, decision making processes or lack thereof, social life, spiritual life, educational life, financial reality, and more. Most redevelopment of churches begins with the premise that the only way forward is to make wholesale changes in hopes that the changes will miraculously bring whatever it is we seek. Short of trauma, no person or organization changes that quickly and generally changes undertaken that drastically seem to fragment more than construct.

One concept of innovation is called the adjacent possible. “The adjacent possible is kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways the present can reinvent itself”. Further, “What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” (“Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Johnson p. 31)

The adjacent possible works like this. A parish wishes to include alternative forms of music in worship. One understanding of innovation would suggest, for example, one drops all use of the current hymnal in order to use new music. Why would anyone think that a congregation that has used traditional music for decades would all of a sudden warmly embrace the use of alternative music? Generally they would not. If told that they must, they will object and rightly so. The adjacent possible approach to innovation says this: if the community uses traditional music now and some wish to explore alternative music, what are the steps that can be taken to introduce this idea; steps that connect with where the music life is today but also point to some new frontiers in the future and steps that invite people to experience, reflect, decide and embrace. The leadership takes the long view that says the reshaping of our worship life deserves all the care needed because worship is at the core of our life and music is essential to worship. With that in mind, adjacent possible says begin gradually adding the alternative music people seek while explaining what you are doing every step of the way. If the current practice is hymnody of the current hymnal, then alternative music of the same genre is a good place to begin because the pattern is familiar to the people and becomes more inviting and welcoming. Once outside exclusive use of the hymnal, the next adjacent possible becomes looking at all the various resources of music available and the choosing of those that work with the basic desires of the current worshipping community. And then whatever the next adjacent possible is becomes clear. Perhaps some form of contemporary music done in a way that invites people to experience that music without having to give up all they know.

The key ingredients in this process are patience, seeking feedback, conversation and continued communication not only on what the innovation is in terms of change, but why. Change for the sake of sake change generally does not work. But innovation because of the yearning of the people and the prompting of the Holy Spirit utilizing such approaches as the adjacent possible provide us a pathway for growth, change and vitality. What is it you think needs to change in your parish community? What might the adjacent possible look like in that situation?

The Rev. Dr. Alvin Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation, Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania

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