3 Box Thinking – How to Structure Your Church for Innovation


As you enter 2016, Eric Swanson suggests that it is helpful to put everything you do in your church into one of three boxes:

  • Box 1 represents THE PRESENT and contains all the stuff that is currently working in your church—the weekend services, the topics and style of your preaching, small groups, global missions, the men’s steak fry, etc. We must manage and improve the present. How can we get better and more efficient at what we currently do? How do we know what to invest in? There are strong, clear signals based on results and feedback. But since last year some stuff that used to work no longer is working so we need another box. That’s where Box 2 comes in.
  • Box 2 represents THE PAST—stuff that has worked before but now needs to selectively be abandoned and forgotten because this (program, approach, ministry philosophy, etc) is a dead horse that is never to run again. We can appreciate and honor these bygone relics of fruitfulness but it’s time to put them on the curb or call the Goodwill truck.
  • Box 3 represents THE FUTURE—stuff that is on the near or far horizon that may one day be of value but calls for careful investigation. The strong, clear signals of Box 1 are replaced with weak signals, intuition, and hunches. Box 3 becomes the R&D arm of your church. Box 3 is about rapid experimentation and rapid innovation. Box 3 is your “bet on the future.” Is anyone playing around with the “Western Roll” while high-jumpers are still setting high jump record with a “Scissors” jump? Box 3 consists of scattering a lot of seeds and see which plants pop out of the soil.
It is helpful to put everything you do in your church into one of three boxes...Click To Tweet

Now for a couple of interesting observations: Most of the time Box 3 is at odds with Box 1. Yes, you read that right. Because at this point Box 3 is expending resources and is (seemingly) getting nothing in return and Box 1 always has to pay for Box 3 and that upsets the bean counters. So its good to think of Box 3 the way Big Pharma thinks about drug research. Vijay Govindarajan, thought leader on “3 Box Strategy,” says that “ongoing operations are always at odds with innovation” most likely because they have different scorecards. The bottom line for Box 1 is “profit,” however you measure it. The bottom line for Box 3 is “validated learning” (learning that emerges from rapid experimentation and iteration). The accountability of those who work in Box 3 is based on conducting low cost experiments and their ability to rapidly learn. No, Box 3 is not the space for goofballs but it may be the place for the “crazy ones”—you know, those people who end up changing the world.

Dish Blockbuster Store ClosingsHere’s the kicker: Enterprises that have no Box 3 become obsessed with and double-down on their Box 1 and while they are going in the tank they complain that people “don’t get it.”  Circuit City, Borders, E.F. Hutton, Blockbuster, Pan Am, Woolworths, etc. were at one time were record-breaking companies but they had no Box 3 to determine how they would innovate to prepare for the future. In 2007 Nokia’s market share of phones was over 50 percent. By the third quarter of 2012 the company’s market share had slipped to just 3.5 percent. I think we could throw in our share of large churches, denominations, and parachurch organizations that no longer exist because they had no Box 3.

But how can you do this in your own church?  Eric gives some great, practical tips on what you can do in your next Leadership Retreat here.

What do YOU think?



  • Glen Edward February 2, 2016 Reply

    The 3 box systems can be helpful for boards as well as staff. Very helpful.

    But I have to point out that, at least in my experience, it is not the “bean counters” ( assuming this label refers to trained and skilled finance people) who oppose innovation. They understand conceptually how operations and innovation might clash.

    It is unintuitive, I know, but if this label means anything, it refers to staffers – particularly, poorly trained Pastors – who sit on their hindquarters repeating failed processes for the sake of tradition.

    I find it unhelpful to use labels, especially using disparaging labels, to create unencumbered futures.

  • Jeremy Phillips February 2, 2016 Reply

    Unfortunately, many Churches are structured with nearly zero time to be able to take a vacation let alone have time to take a day or a week to focus on the future. They may have calendar meeting days and call it forward thinking, but the next immediate event or service seems to consume most of the Staff and Volunteer margin.

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