A First Look at the Culture of Innovation within OMF

This paper looks into the need to innovate, what it means to OMF, why it is important, what our culture is in relation to innovation, what lessons can be learned from the business world and others in mission, and how we can apply these to be an organization that creates, supports, and sustains a culture of innovation.

A First Look at the Culture of Innovation within OMF


Mission Round TableVol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 11-15


By quickly browsing recent business journals and similar sources, one will notice the topic of innovation coming up over and over again. While this topic was already trending pre-pandemic, the current global situation due to COVID-19 has not dampened the conversation, as companies and organizations, large and small, strive to remain agile and relevant. So, is innovation just something for consultants and CEOs? Is there any relevance for mission organizations such as OMF? Moreover, how does a mission organization with over 150 years of history and tradition engage with innovation? This paper seeks to take a brief look into the need to innovate, what it means to us, and why it is important. In addition, as an organization that is in the process of soul-searching and reimagining, what is our culture as it relates to innovation? How is it experienced—both positively and negatively? Finally, what lessons can we learn from the business world and others in mission, and how can we apply all of this in order to be an organization that creates, supports, and sustains a culture of innovation as we strive to achieve our purpose?

Is innovation important for a mission organization?

Businesses innovate to remain relevant, efficient, and effective, to keep their investors financially viable, to retain or enhance their market share, and to maintain reasonable employee retention. As a mission organization that does not exist for profit, are we exempt from those factors? Is innovation irrelevant to our work? While we don’t seek out innovation in order to be market leaders or gain market domination, innovation does help us carry out our vision—to see the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness brought to East Asia’s people—in the best way possible. Innovation is, therefore, not an end in itself, and should not be idealized as something that we seek to attain for the sake of it, or to stay on trend. But neither is it something to be avoided, or criticized for fear of being seen as “too secular” or as disregarding our history or heritage.

Our very history, in fact, has shown that innovation has brought us opportunities and taken us places that we would not have gone if we’d followed the path we were initially travelling. Historically, we’ve seen that many times innovations have been prompted by external factors and have led to some very large changes to our organization and its strategy.[1] Yet, despite this, recent conversations that international leaders have held with some younger colleagues and leaders indicate that there may currently be a sense among certain groups that we are not very open to change. Despite our organization’s leadership expressing a desire that we try new things—the early seasons of the Reimagine initiative being key examples—there is still a perception that our organizational culture is not receptive to innovation. Whether this perception is real or only perceived, it still raises the question: how do we go about encouraging innovation?

The pursuit of innovation should be held in balance, and not seen as the main or only ideal. What we are looking at here, instead of making innovation a priority, is developing a stance of being open to innovation when the situation requires it, and encouraging (not discouraging) the innovative and inquisitive approach and attitude to challenges.

An initial look at our culture

The Reimagine initiative and the COVID-19 pandemic sparked conversations within OMF’s International Leadership Team (ILT) that were supplemented by the input of colleagues from around the Fellowship. These conversations have brought to light insights into various issues—such as the feelings of colleagues around the fellowship from non-Western backgrounds—exposed generational gaps within the fellowship, and demonstrated our response to the current pandemic as individual centers and as an organization. Many of these led to the same place—the need to challenge our organizational culture. Another significant thought arising from these conversations was to consider developing an “innovation hub” along with smaller innovation groups that rally around a shared interest.[2] Rather than providing a quick response, the ILT wanted to go deeper and give more consideration to what our actual culture is with regard to innovation. It was felt that it would be more important to understand this before moving forward, rather than proceeding with another new project. The following is an initial look into innovation and culture within OMF.

That innovation is a positive thing is not disputed by the leadership of OMF and is, in fact, a value that is widely encouraged. A look around the organization also shows that a fair amount of innovation has been done. However, experience “on the ground” shows that the perception of OMF by some is that it is slow to innovate, react, or go “outside” of the handbook. It should be noted that some people assume things that aren’t usually done are “outside” the handbook even when they are actually permitted by the handbook.

As a result of ILT’s desire for a deeper look, a pilot survey was conducted which included the following questions:

  • What do you perceive to be the culture of our organization with respect to innovation?
  • What is a time you’ve seen innovation happen and what was in place to allow that to happen?
  • AND/OR What is a time you’ve seen innovation knocked back and why do you think it was? What was the outcome and what were the responses to the outcome?

What follows are some of the responses:

  • “Don’t want to subvert but it feels sometimes like our hands are tied by rules, we don’t know where they come from.”
  • “Loud voices are the ones that get noticed.”
  • “Even though we talk about it, at the end of the day we still ‘do things the way they’ve always been done,’ whether that’s convenient or whether it’s pragmatic.”
  • “We were able to get the chance at what we wanted to try only when someone approached our leader, begging them to not ‘quench our young, unbridled enthusiasm.’ We ended up with a fruitful and informative mobilization platform.”
  • “When we started something new, I didn’t want to consult with Fellowship Services, as I thought they’d tell me what to do. I was pleasantly surprised when we were told they were there to support.”
  • “I generally feel heard but sometimes can get shut down completely.”
  • “I sometimes want to try starting things, but I don’t want to look like we are causing trouble or starting a revolution, I feel someone above would want to control it or shut us down.”

Although this survey was small and merely scratched the surface, a cursory assessment indicates that there are those within the organization who feel that innovation is not approved, supported or, as suggested by the very reason for this study, not even happening. And yet, if, as stated earlier, leadership is supportive of innovation, the question we must ask is: what is behind this disconnect? This is an issue for further investigation.

Some insights from external sources

While we are not a for-profit business, there are still things we can learn from the business world, where many organizations have had to answer the same questions about nurturing a culture in which innovation is embraced and not avoided. These, of course, should not be blindly accepted as relevant to us in our context. Even so, unpacking some lessons learned from the business world, as well as from others in the missions world, helps us see where some of our blind spots may be, and enables us to identify what we want our culture to be and begin to nurture such a culture.

Here are some notable learnings:

•   Cultural change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate. [3] Optimism, trust, and creativity cannot be dictated, but initiators and social movements help to mobilize these norms within organizations and societies. Giving people the resources (and permission) they need to shake things up can help change flourish where a mandate could not.

•   The importance of harnessing networks.[4] It is essential to encourage people to think and explore beyond their own silo. Effective movement makers know how to leverage social networks. People are more apt to support something they have a stake in creating.

•   Cultural change will face resistance. [5] It is a difficult journey that some will embrace and others won’t.

•   Past failures become lessons for the future. [6] Mistakes happen. Instead of never trying again, work out what went wrong and apply that when trying again.

•   PowerPoint presentations will sometimes inspire and sometimes another way will be needed. [7] On discovering that keynote addresses were not enough to inspire, the company Intuit sought a different way to help their team innovate to find the best possible solutions. In the end, they created a group of innovation catalysts—or coaches—to journey with teams.

•   Safe spaces are vital. [8] Watch for ways that team members may be made to feel afraid or unable to voice their thoughts. Leaders or dominant team members may be causing this without realizing it. People may feel a need to be protected if an idea they voice does not go according to plan. Signaling that it’s safe to speak candidly, and giving time and space to those who are less comfortable speaking out—such as introverts and non-native English speakers—are also vital to helping people feel safe in speaking up.

•   Reward vulnerability rather than punish it.[9] Leaders set the tone and create the vibe. When people express the “intellectual bravery” to disagree, they may feel that they are at risk of being punished. However, when they are rewarded for contributing without ridicule, safe spaces are created.

•   A moderate amount of friction is positive. [10] Finding the places where resistance and friction are experienced will often reveal where the dominant organizational design and culture are working against natural movement. It is here where things may need to evolve. These are good places to start.

•   Risk is required to encourage a culture of creativity.[11] Grace and permission to fail are required. As there is always a risk of pushback, we must learn to honor and respect those who push back. At the same time, we must avoid letting their hesitation to always stifle innovation.

•   Welcome questions and encourage openness.[12] Ask questions and invite them. Take conversations beyond the organizational chart.

•   Work strategically with those who say “We could never do that here.” [13] Rules often become barriers, especially when the norms and processes just cannot change. Encourage the question “What if?”

•   Habits become idols.[14] There are times when habits become rules. The danger comes when the habit becomes the idol.


What can we take away from this? Here are some reflections on how we might apply these findings:

1.     Innovation should not be seen as an end in and of itself. It is a mindset. If it does not help us to better carry out our vision, mission, and values, efforts to innovate will distract us from our real goal. Innovation should be a mindset, a value, a way of remaining open to what God might be doing, challenging us in, or calling us to do that is different to what we have already been doing in the particular context. We can’t structure innovation. Instead, we have to foster and cultivate it, embrace creativity and curiosity, and encourage learning and sharing. When innovation is a value that we recognize and validate, we empower our colleagues to try new things, ask questions, and discover new paths to follow. Rather than mandating innovation, creating a culture that makes innovation a permissible way to approach a challenge allows it to grow organically and be carried out in order to solve a problem. From this perspective, the answer is not necessarily to create more structures. Rather, one part of the solution might be to take a closer look at the structures and networks we already have in order to both understand the obstacles to innovative thinking, and journey with individuals and small key groups to champion a more open way of thinking.

2.     An innovation mindset embraces learning, even from mistakes and failure. A mindset of innovation will inevitably result in some mistakes being made. Calculating risk can help minimize mistakes, but we musn’t overlook the lessons and insights that mistakes allow us to learn.[15] How have big changes in the Fellowship come about in the past? A major factor has been external circumstances that forced the Fellowship to take risks and try something new. In those times, there was never a guarantee that no mistakes or failure would occur. Even so, there was a willingness to step out in faith and head in an uncharted direction. We would do well to learn from circumstances like these so that we can understand, especially in times of external pressure, what the attitudes and postures have been that have allowed changes—the tangible signs of innovation—to take place. What have been the values and beliefs—such as reliance on God and assurance in his leading—that have allowed the Fellowship to take its biggest, and sometimes most uncomfortable, steps in new directions? And what, on the other hand, are the times innovation has been knocked back in the fellowship? What was learned (or not learned) in those times? Some will argue that many failures or “disasters” have been averted by avoiding a “risky” innovative idea. There can be truth in this, and yet, it may also be equally true that a potential lesson has been lost.

3.     The successes and failures of innovation must be well documented or important learning will be lost. Much of what we know from the 1800s and early 1900s has been meticulously recorded. These days, while large-scale events or programs are documented, it is equally likely that the smaller stories and lessons around the Fellowship have either become absorbed into the culture in its own context or have become a lost lesson. While we need to take care that we are not directed only by our history, it is still important for the process of trial and error, success or repeated failure, and subsequent reflection to be documented and shared. This should not be in order to say that “We did this before and it failed, so don’t try it again,” but to allow us to learn from one another, see what God has been doing, and allow this shared learning to inspire further development.[16] Some examples where sharing knowledge and experience would be beneficial include planning a conference online, running virtual Serve Asia prayer journeys, developing apps, and running ministry apprenticeship programs. Many of these examples have been carried out recently, and yet, without knowledge sharing, this most likely has not only led to repetition of work, but also limited the ability for the inspiration and creativity that can come from sharing ideas. New projects, such as the online Communities of Purpose, could be good tools for helping people share knowledge. However, the question that must be asked is how we build a culture that loves to share what is learned, and seek knowledge from the experience of others.

4.     Many innovations are not necessarily giant leaps, but small steps. Many times, in the R&D world, just performing a minor tweak in something results in a new invention.[17] Sometimes, someone does not even realize they are doing something innovative until someone else sees it and reports it “up the chain.” However, as it is not the innovation itself that is the goal, but the learning of a good, or maybe even better, way to do something, these things could easily be missed if we aren’t looking around for what is being done differently that can also help others around the Fellowship. We must then walk the careful line between encouraging innovation and only recognizing big innovation. If we turn innovation into a big “project,” we may well miss the small innovations that are happening right in front of us. How do we then encourage this “trying something” that may not be noticed and lauded as a huge innovation? How do we nurture and celebrate the curiosity and creativity of people around the fellowship?

5.     Safe spaces must be created for innovation, especially for those who dont have organizational “power”. In addition to the previous point, we must recognize the courage it may require for a young, creative mind who works in a large organization steeped in history to try something new or say something unexpected.[18] Are our avenues of communication seen as safe enough, especially for younger, newer colleagues, and also colleagues from “minority” cultures—even those in leadership? It has already been observed that we need to “create safe communities, and facilitate members from non-dominant groups to be actively able to participate in discussions and decision-making.”[19] Regardless of what leadership would like the culture to be, do people around the Fellowship experience being both encouraged and supported to try new things? Or, does the experience on the ground reflect a “do things by the book … or else” mentality? If the feeling is more negative than positive, where is it coming from, and at what stage of a colleague’s journey is this perception arising?

6.     Culture is defined from the very start of the journey. What are the values that we nurture in our colleagues from the very outset, at the orientation course, or even through the candidate process? Is our very application process something that has created a culture of box-checking that closes off creativity? What would it look like for a mindset of innovation, curiosity, and creativity to be introduced from those early stages, while still maintaining a firm homage to our history, heritage, traditions, and existing systems and treasuring what they teach us? How do we balance holding to our values and being open to new ways in which God may be working? The recent marketplace worker pilot project may be one example of how we are making some in-roads here, but how will the “system” hold up when it moves beyond the pilot project stage?


Understanding the culture of our organization with respect to innovation is an important step in seeing movement towards innovation and creativity, but it is just the beginning. Further exploration of innovation “petri dishes” or natural hubs, as well as barriers—perceived or real—will help paint a better picture for us, as will learning from other mission organizations. As we look to “solutions” to the question of innovation, we really must go beyond a three-step formula and instead take an honest look at our hearts, attitudes, and the ability of our culture to permit the diversity of our people—not only ethnically or generationally, but in our affinity or aversion to creativity, and our willingness or unwillingness to embrace the unknown—while remaining in step with our Lord, our Guide. Already, there is a sense that a key to empowering our colleagues to try new things for the sake of bringing the good news to East Asia’s millions, is creating safe spaces and support for them as they navigate the current climate and changing conditions in the world and on the mission field. As we continue looking into how to do this, we must further understand cultural perceptions, as well as evaluate our systems, seek to make the best of existing networks, mutually share learning, and break down some of the communication barriers that have arisen.

It takes courage to ask “What if …?” Whether innovation is crucial to the carrying out of our mission or not—for there is nothing new about the gospel we preach—it is certainly vital that a spirit of encouragement and gentle nurturing fills the environment into which new ideas, curious minds, and courageous questions can feel free to enter.


[1] See Walter McConnell’s article “Christian Mission and Innovation: The Experience of CIM/OMF in History, the Present, and the Future” in this issue of Mission Round Table.

[2] Melissa Chan, “Pursuing Innovation within OMF,” 3 September 2020, unpublished paper.

[3] Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule, “Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate,” Harvard Business Review, 20 June 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/06/changing-company-culture-requires-a-movement-not-a-mandate (accessed 22 April 2021); “Upskilling 2.0: Business-led, People-powered, Results-driven: How Citizen-led Innovation Can Change a Workforce from the Inside Out,” PwC, https://www.pwc.com/us/en/about-us/workforce-strategy.html (accessed 22 April 2021).

[4] Timothy R. Clark, “To Foster Innovation, Cultivate a Culture of Intellectual Bravery,” Harvard Business Review, 13 October 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/10/to-foster-innovation-cultivate-a-culture-of-intellectual-bravery (accessed 22 April 2021). Walker and Soule, “Changing Company Culture.”

[5] Gary P. Pisano, “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures,” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 1 (January-February 2019): 62–71.

[6] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Innovation: The Classic Traps,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Innovation,ed. Peter F. Drucker (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2013), 103.

[7] Roger L. Martin, “The Innovation Catalysts,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Innovation,1–10.

[8] Walker and Soule, “Changing Company Culture”; Clark, “To Foster Innovation”; Michael Parke and Elad N. Sherf, “You Might Not Be Hearing Your Team’s Best Ideas,” Harvard Business Review, 4 June 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/06/you-might-not-be-hearing-your-teams-best-ideas (accessed 22 April 2021).

[9] Clark, “To Foster Innovation.”

[10] Walker and Soule, “Changing Company Culture”; Douglas Holt, “Cultural Innovation: The Secret to Building Breakthrough Businesses,” Harvard Business Review 98, no. 5 (September-October 2020): 106–115.

[11] Larry B. Jones, “Must Haves for Innovations in Mission (Part Two),” The Exchange with Ed

Stetzer (blog), 16 April 2017, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2017/april/must-haves-for-innovation-in-missions-part-two.html (accessed 22 April 2021).

[12] Zander Lurie, “How I Did It: SurveyMonkey’s CEO on Creating a Culture of Curiosity,” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 1 (January-February 2019): 35–39.

[13] Duncan Wardle, “How can You be more Innovative? Try the What-if Method,” Quartz at Work, 19 August 2020, https://qz.com/work/1893755/how-can-you-spark-innovation-try-the-what-if-method/ (accessed 22 April 2021).

[14] Karl Vaters, “Innovation or Insistence,” Pivot (blog),27 February 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2018/february/innovation-or-insistence-reach-your-goal.html (accessed 22 April 2021).

[15] Kanter, “Innovation: The Classic Traps,” 103.

[16] Kanter, “Innovation: The Classic Traps,” 106–108.

[17] Kanter, “Innovation: The Classic Traps,” 118–119.

[18] Walker and Soule, “Changing Company Culture”; Kanter, “Innovation: The Classic Traps,” 111, 116.

[19] Sydney Witbooi, “Factors Hindering a Deeper Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in the Field Leadership of OMF,” 16 October 2020, unpublished paper, 13.

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