Thoughts on innovation

A few months ago, during a company all-hands meeting at Fellowship Tech, our CEO Jeff Hook posed a question to the group: What does innovation mean to you? - and encouraged people to share. After briefly giving it some thought, I stood up and said something to the effect of:

Innovation is not putting your head on the pillow each night and thinking: "Well, I did my best." Innovation is constantly pushing yourself to learn more and be better. Innovation is about increasing your capacity for "best." Because if you cannot accomplish what you aspire to, then your best is simply not good enough.

Essentially, innovation does not happen when you're just doing what you're already capable of doing. If you put forth "your best" each day, but never really get any better, then you cannot realistically expect different results, let alone a dramatic improvement. Likewise, if your metric of success is simply staying on-par or slightly ahead of your competition, you are not really innovating.


Occasionally, I will be asked by someone familiar with church software, or a fellow employee in our company: "Have you seen what Other Co. is building? They're currently working on Bright Shiny™ feature XYZ." This is usually followed by a brief pause, in which they probably expect I either say one of two things:

  1. Yes, I've been watching with great interest!
  2. No, I haven't heard yet. Tell me, what is it?

Instead, I typically reiterate my "horse with blinders" analogy…

Horse Blinders

Basically, I am usually unaware of our "competition" in the church management software market, because - for better or worse - I am not watching them. With all due respect to such companies, the bar has been set pretty low for ChMS solutions. Instead, I look to companies ahead of our segment for inspiration, those that are truly doing innovative work. I am not interested in comparing myself to those alongside, or slightly behind, my own skill set.

I only concern myself over those I aspire to be like. Unless an organization is making an impact at a global level, chances are I probably haven't bothered to keep current on all the details. There are only so many hours in the day.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for competition - especially when it benefits the "big C" church as a whole. I just don't feel a fire of motivation lit underneath me by Bright Shiny™ feature XYZ. To use a Princess Bride analogy, I would have to "fence left-handed" for that level of competition to feel challenging.

My Heroes

Instead, I am constantly trying to push myself to learn from the greats. This may read like a list of "usual suspects" but that is only because these establishments are at the top of their respective games. I'll simply list them alphabetically…


Firstly, 37signals. While they are probably best known for creating and stewarding the Ruby on Rails framework, what I find most impressive is the way they do business. They are lean - doing less with more, and advocating that less is more. They are mean - meaning, they can say "no" when appropriate. They habitually challenge flawed presuppositions about software and business, and they share their knowledge through books like Getting Real and Rework.


When it comes to user interface design - both in software and hardware - as well as human-computer interaction, it is hard to find a more innovative company than Apple. When setting out to design something that may already be an established paradigm, 9 times out of 10, I will check and see what Apple has to say on the subject. Sometimes I will peruse their Human Interface Guidelines, but mostly I just tend to click around OSX and see what precedents have been set.

I don't always agree with some of their design decisions, and less frequently with how they do business, but at least it gives me a starting point. I figure, if Microsoft tries to emulate their designs, I am probably in good company.

Google + Yahoo

For as much as I draw UI design inspiration from Apple, I look to Google and Yahoo with the same level of admiration. I appreciate their approach to open source, as well as scalable web apps. I've pored over books like JavaScript: The Good Parts, High Performance Websites, and Even Faster Websites.

I'm intrigued by what Google is doing with Android. While I greatly respect Apple for redefining what a smart phone should be, I like that Android is open source and is just as capable. I recently bought an HTC Incredible and love it.

Don't let the name fool you. Much more than just a single church, with a sizable portion of their ministry online (not television), is easily one of the most innovative churches in the world. I mean, imagine the forethought required to provide an app named "Bible" for iPhone, Blackberry, Android, and Palm.

What's more - they provide their resources free of charge, to be used by other ministries that perhaps do not have the budget for an in-house creative team. All such resources are available on their Open Resources page.

I am proud to say that I just wrapped up a bit of freelance work for them which should be launching soon. Also, later this week at the Dynamic Church Conference, I will be on a web design critique panel entitled UX Roast alongside LCTV Digerati Pastor Terry Storch and design guru Stephen P. Anderson.

My Efforts

So what does all this mean? How am I applying it in my own life and work?

Iterative Refinement

Inasmuch as possible, the UX team at Fellowship Tech advocates making things more intuitive and performant. We have a pretty full featured product offering as it is, so we try to push a "Snow Leopard" approach. It is no coincidence that the latest releases of Mac OS 10.6 and Windows 7 both primarily focused on improved speed and stability, not on adding needless bells and whistles.

That's not to say we don't develop new features. But, we try to take a measured approach. I'm quite fond of quoting the phrase coined by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — "Bring me problems, not solutions."

Rather than implementing a knee-jerk reaction, a la make the logo bigger we try to understand what issues a church might be facing, and try to come up with a solution that best meets the needs of all churches that use our product.

Making such tweaks to an existing product can be likened somewhat to changing tires on a moving bus. You can make incremental improvements, but you cannot take the whole thing out of service. As I have written about previously, this is why we use the Scrum project management methodology.

Design Patterns + Code Standards

Design Patterns + Code Standards

As we iteratively innovate, we capture and document UI metaphors that can serve as precedents moving forward, both inside and beyond our organization. We publish these in our Design Patterns library, as well as our Code Standards which we have made available for reuse under a Creative Commons license.

I am happy to say that since releasing our Fellowship Tech code standards to the community at large, that at least three groups (that I know of) have used it as a starting point for their own documentation…

If you hear of any other adaptations, let me know.

My Advice

If I could make one suggestion to those building web apps - or really anyone in any sort of business - it would be this: Don't be so concerned with your competition that all you do is worry whether or not you match point-for-point in a laundry list of features. Don't fret over the customers you don't have. Instead, add as much value as possible for people who already use your product.

In short - aspire to be like your heroes, not just your peers.