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John Naisbitt wrote Megatrends in 1982 and accurately predicted the rise of the information society, globalization, decentralization and the power of networks. The book has sold over nine million copies in fifty-eight countries and was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, most of that time as number one. How did he discover these magatrends? It is surprisingly low tech, even for 1982.

Naisbitt turned the newspaper into a crystal ball but by measuring it, not reading it. According to Thomas Goetz, the executive editor of WIRED magazine, Naisbitt actually used a ruler to measure the number of column inches a particular topic earned over time. Topics that trended with increased column space were more likely to represent emerging trends. Naisbitt said the news “becomes a mechanical representation of society sorting out its priorities.”58

The very megatrends Naisbitt predicted would make it impossible to use the newspaper as a crystal ball into the future. But that doesn’t eliminate the longing leaders have to deepen their understanding of what’s next. I agree with Peter Drucker who said the best way to predict the future is to create it.59 So rather than attempting to upgrade Naisbitt’s methodology I’d like to focus on the disciplines and habits that stimulate innovative thinking.

There is no silver bullet or exhaustive list. But I have three ideas I think are worthy of consideration.

Read And Relate Outside Your Core Discipline.60

Cross-disciplinary thinking is the seedbed of many new ideas. For example, psychology has traditionally been isolated from economics. But in the 1970s psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky began wrestling with questions about human behavior that economists could not explain. This unusual combination of psychology and economics produced the entirely new discipline of behavioral economics. This growing field is informing decisions in government, education and business. It has much to say to mission leaders as well.

The cross-pollination of ideas is not new. In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer says, “The history of innovation is full of ‘inventors’ engaged in ‘compounding’ and ‘transposing’.” Johannes Gutenberg built on his knowledge of winepresses and morphed it into an idea for a printing machine capable of mass producing words. Often the best ideas are actually mash-ups of existing concepts, the compounding and transposing of the seemingly unrelated.

When Dick Drew first saw the newly developed material called cellophane he had an idea that had nothing to do with cheap packaging materials, which is how DuPont was using the product at the time. He ordered a quantity of cellophane and started coating it with adhesive. He called the new product, Scotch tape. Less than two years after the product hit the market it was the most popular consumer tape in the world.

The most innovative leaders make time to read and relate outside their core discipline. To quote again from Jonah Lehrer, “the biggest problems we need to solve now require the expertise of people from different backgrounds who bridge the gaps between disciplines. Unless we learn to share our ideas with others, we will be stuck with a world of seemingly impossible problems. We can either all work together or fail alone.”61 This should be second nature in the body of Christ but the fact is we tend to operate in parallel silos of insider expertise that far too easily dismisses the ideas of outsiders, all the more when they challenge our fundamental assumptions.

Ask the Question, “What Will Not Change?”

It has become fashionable to look at the future through only the Naisbitt lens of impending megatrends. But effective innovators understand the importance of existing trend lines whose trajectory is not expected to change in the near future. Paul Nunes and Tim Breene, in their book, Jumping the S-Curve, suggest trends that are not likely to change help organizations create a Big Enough Market Insight (BEMI). I have taken the liberty of renaming the BEMI as a Big Enough Ministry Insight.

They illustrate the idea of a BEMI from the experience of global health care company Novo Nordisk, who rightly recognized the growing affluence of emerging nations would lead to changes in diet that would result in more obesity and ultimately a dramatic increase in diabetes.62 In 1999, Lars Sorenson, the executive vice president of the Novo Nordisk health care business, predicted the number of diabetics worldwide would go from one hundred million to three hundred million by 2020. It turns out his prediction was probably low, as the World Diabetes Foundation says there were two hundred-eighty-five million in 2010.

Of course understanding what is not likely to change is only the first step. You have to play the question out by answering the “so what” questions that connect the trend to market opportunities, or for us, ministry insights. When Novo Nordisk decided to make a global push to dominate the insulin market they were bit players in the major markets. Eli Lily, for example, controlled 82% of the market in the U.S. But based on this well timed BEMI, Novo Nordisk now controls 52% of the global insulin market.

This is what synthetic biologist Drew Endy describes as “surfing the exponentials,”63 which enables innovators to ride the momentum of the trend waves, often toward smaller, cheaper and faster ways to solve problems. You probably remember when video on the Internet took so long to buffer it required more patience than most leaders could muster to watch a thirty second clip. But Jawed Karim, co-founder of YouTube, read an article in WIRED magazine that sparked an epiphany: the trend line for broadband is faster and cheaper, which will totally disrupt how people watch videos. Now one hour of video is uploaded to YouTube every second and over four billion videos are viewed every day.64

A similar trend has emerged with cloud computing. I have more free storage space in the cloud today than I had on my first few laptops. This trend has diminished the significance of resident memory and made it much easier to imagine a day when mobile devices like tablets will completely replace laptop computers.

The real question for us is, where are the exponentials in the world of missions and how can we surf them to identify ministry insights in the future?

Learn How To Leverage The Assets Of Others

Years ago a key mentor in my life held a series of training sessions around the country. The one I attended was in a beautiful Catholic retreat center. During one of the breaks I casually mentioned to my mentor how nice it would be to own this place. He said, “It’s a great place; but I’d rather have the benefit of using it without the responsibility of maintaining it.” He went on to give me a short lesson in how to leverage the assets of others.

This mindset can be critical for innovative thinkers. Netflix didn’t have to own a delivery system to launch. They simply leveraged the U.S. Postal Service and the good feeling you had knowing you could leave that disc sitting on your entertainment center for weeks without incurring a late fee. The founders of Airbnb thought about how many bedrooms are empty on any given night and saw them as underutilized inventory that could be leveraged into a business model.

We are seeing fresh signs of this principle in the world of missions, as evidenced by the 2012 eXcelerate award for partnership in mission, which was presented to SIM and Asian Access for their creative partnership in Japan that is leveraging the assets of each organization in a truly win/win relationship. I would love to see this become a trend line for the future.

So you want to be an innovator? I have a few questions for you. What is your track record for reading and relating outside your core discipline? How could you leverage what is not going to change into a Big Enough Ministry Insight? And what challenges are you facing that could be solved by leveraging the assets of others?

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