Planning in Pencil: Letting an Innovation Be What It Wants to Be

September 23rd, 2013

German chemist Alfred Einhorn was seeking to invent a nonaddictive narcotic for general surgery. In 1905, he succeeded in inventing what we now call Novocain. To his chagrin, his invention was rejected by most surgeons because they favored general anesthesia, while dentists loved the new drug, using it to help them pull teeth. Einhorn was convinced that dentists’ use of Novocain devalued his noble invention and undercut its potential market for general surgery. So he spent the later part of his life in a fruitless attempt at keeping dentists from using it.[1]

Clearly, he didn’t have much success. And in hindsight, we can’t help but wonder, “What was he thinking?”

Or, more recently, consider the story of Dr. Spencer Silver, creator of the glue that makes Post-It Notes possible. Dr. Silver was an employee of 3M. He was attempting to formulate a powerful glue when he ended up creating a low-tack, pressure-sensitive, reusable glue. Having no idea what it was good for, he tried to promote it to the management of 3M to see if they had any ideas on how it could be used. They labeled it a solution without a problem. Six years later, one of Dr. Silver’s coworkers started using it to temporarily hold a bookmark in his hymnbook. It worked marvelously. So Dr. Silver put some of it on the back side of a pad of paper, and suddenly, Dr. Silver’s solution had found its problem.[2]

This should remind us of the truth that we don’t really know what something is—whether it’s a new product, a new program, or some other innovation—until it hits the real world.

That’s why we should always plan and innovate in pencil. And not just at the beginning, when we’re coming up with new and creative ideas. Use a pencil all the way through the lifecycle, making plans, but always being ready to change them at a moment’s notice.


Planning in pencil simply means keeping your options open as long as possible. It involves using the language of flexibility rather than certainty. It’s being careful to say, “This is what we do for now,” rather than, “This is what we will do forever.” It’s making sure that everyone knows that midcourse corrections aren’t simply allowed; they’re encouraged.

At North Coast Church, our entire ministry is built around sermon-based small groups. Think “lecture-lab,” with the weekend sermon being the lecture and the weekly small group being the lab. When we launched the concept nearly thirty years ago, we knew of no other churches using our model. (There might have been, we just didn’t know of any.) It was an innovative and laser-focused paradigm.

These midweek small groups have been a smashing success from day one. Our weekly small group attendance has always exceeded 80 percent of our weekend attendance. Currently, it’s more than 90 percent. These groups have helped slam our back door shut. They’ve turned a massive crowd into a church. They’ve been the major reason for our sustained growth and spiritual health over the years.

Yet we’ve constantly had to tweak them. Even from the beginning, nothing has gone exactly as planned.

We thought leaders wanted and needed lots of training. So we not only offered it; we made it mandatory. Until we realized that some of our best leaders were the ones who skipped the extra meetings.

We thought we could make every group sermon-based. But we quickly realized that if you treat adults like children, they don’t respond too well. So we stepped back and started allowing groups to pick a different type of Bible study for a quarter, as long as they returned to our sermon-based curriculum when the quarter was over.

We also envisioned tiered layers of oversight, with each group overseen by a volunteer leader of five groups, who would be overseen by a leader of twenty-five groups. With this limited span of care (no one directly overseeing more than five people), we were sure we had the ideal administrative and coaching system in place. It was manageable and realistic. It looked great on paper.

It sucked in real life. The volunteers hated it.

I could go on. After nearly thirty years, the list of things we’ve been wrong about or radically changed is quite long. But we’ve continued to be successful because we’ve been willing to change as the facts changed. And to do so quickly. We use a pencil all the way through the lifecycle, making plans, but always being ready to change them at a moment’s notice. 


Excerpted and adapted from Larry Osborne’s latest book, Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret (Zondervan, October 2013)

[1] Peter Drucker, Peter Drucker on the Profession of Management, Harvard Business Review Books (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2003), 55.

[2] “About Post-It Brand,” Post-It Brand Products website,

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