Several years ago, Japanese farmers got a neospark—a new idea to spark an innovation. They realized that the oblong, oval-round shape of natural watermelons makes them very difficult to pack in shipping trucks from the farm to the store, extremely difficult to stack on store shelves—especially in crowded Japanese society where even store shelf space is at a premium, and annoyingly difficult to store in consumers’ refrigerators—especially Japanese refrigerators which are smaller than American refrigerators. And these difficulties hindered watermelon sales.
So what did these genius Japanese farmers do? They didn’t change the taste or color or sweetness of the watermelon—because that’s why people buy watermelons. They just changed one variable—the shape. How?
While a watermelon is still small on the vine, they put a uniform-sized, square, tempered glass (so the sunlight can shine through it) box with holes around the baby watermelon. (You can actually buy your own “Melonmold” on Amazon!) And when the watermelon grows, it simply fills in the box and grows into the square shape. Now the newly designed square watermelon is easier to ship, stack, and store. Brilliant incremental innovation!
No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. Introducing the square watermelon.
Now, notice again something crucial: the farmers didn’t innovate the whole product but simply a feature of the product—the watermelon’s shape. They thought of innovation in a more specific and sophisticated way, rather than just generally or generically. They thought strategically about how to assess and dramatically increase demand for their product by shifting one simple feature.
Another prevailing example of this is the Kindle and how that innovation by Amazon disrupted the book publishing industry. Amazon didn’t reinvent books. They just innovated the method in which people purchase and read books. The Kindle is the “square watermelon” of the book publishing and book purchasing industry.
Let’s apply the “square watermelon” concept of innovation to ministry. What’s the “square watermelon” of the ministry world? How can we shift a simple singular feature of an existing ministry “product” to better satisfy and increase demand for that “product”?
• How can we change a feature of the way we preach God’s Word or deliver our teaching to dramatically increase demand for our teaching?
• What about weekend worship services? (No doubt, internet services have been an attempt to make connecting to a faith community more convenient in our consumer-driven culture. But do you think it has worked with few enough downsides that make the shift positive?)
• Online giving (or giving via a mobile app) is an example of tweaking a feature of the spiritual discipline of giving to increase convenience which tends to increase consistency.
• What’s one single feature could we shift in how people connect in small groups to help that connection be more meaningful and valuable in spiritual development?
• How can we change the way we do church planting or multisite multiplication to increase demand for what the Body of Christ can bring to a local community? How can we rethink multiplication to decrease expense and risk that so often accompanies larger launches including facility rental costs, equipment purchase, staff salaries, marketing resources, etc.? What’s the “square watermelon” of church expansion?
• Delicate Question: How can we “reshape” the primary “product” of the Gospel to better “fit” the cultural context we’re trying so hard to reach? NOTE: Reshaping does not mean changing the nature of the message, but simply the method of how that message is transmitted to better find “shelf space” in people’s minds and hearts.
Do you see other “square watermelon” opportunities in your ministry or business context? Please share them here. Other ideas will spark more and better ideas.
For some reason this reminded me of a Freakonomics podcast I listened to about “nudge units.” The basic idea is that there are small things we can do to increase healthy behavior. One simple example is employers can start new employees with a percentage of salary going to their 401k automatically. Employees are free to opt out but it requires action. Inaction produces a desirable result – saving for retirement.
I want to change. I want to be more like Jesus. I want to connect with God and people more. But change is hard. I like the idea of voluntary preprogrammed systems to help me live life intentionally.
Some of this is already going on. Automated online giving has made my behavior reliably match my goals. Oddly my Bible app congratulates me for the amazing streak I have going even when I haven’t opened it for a week. Feels great for about two seconds.
I’m eager to discover other square watermelon applications for spiritual nudging. There’s a Nudge app which connects you with your health professional, tracks diet and activities and collects data from wearables to help you be more physically healthy. It would make sense to have something similar for spiritual health.
Another quick thought on square watermelon ideas. I was listening to a podcast which made an excellent case that new technologies like YouTube and podcasting are major game changers for teaching and training. Some of my takeaways were:
• They provide on-demand listening / viewing so can accommodate anyone’s schedule. Listeners can make use of any available time (commuting & podcasts for example).
• All students are voluntary learners. In most other teaching environments some fraction of the audience is uninterested in the topic or compelled to be there for some other reason besides wanting to learn. If I’m listening to a lecture or message on YouTube, it’s only because I’m interested in the topic and want to learn more about it.
• Teachers enjoy a very low barrier to entry. A television or recording studio is not required. This also means that content can be free from the influence of advertisers or other funding interests.
• Most online content remains continuously available, not subject to a broadcasting schedule.
• Other technology enabled benefits, like listening at 1.5x speed to save time, slow playback to accommodate disabilities, ability to repeat dense or difficult sections and various speech-to-text and text-to-speech capabilities.
Some part of traditional church has always been communicating a message. New technologies appear to be measurably better at straight information transfer. Of course, what has traditionally been a sermon is a lot more than just imparting information to listeners; there is a social and very human component to it. Maybe the raw training part of Kingdom Building can be separated from whatever has historically been a ‘sermon’ and served up individually via new technologies. It’s possible that this frees up time and resources to devote to human interaction, mentoring and community building, tasks that can’t be easily done by YouTube videos.
Is the square watermelon an innovation success? Yes and no. Did the innovation solve the original problem of shipping and storage of delicious fruit? Not really. Here’s why:
– It is mostly inedible. In order to make the fruit square it is harvested before it is ripe. Consequently, it is ornamental and not for eating.
– It is expensive, many times more than natural watermelon, so it is more for the wealthy and not for everyone.
– It is often packaged in boxes for shipping. This protects the expensive product, but reduces the shipping benefit of being square.
Here are a few reason it is a success:
– It serves the purpose of a unique novelty that can be sold for a relatively high price.
– It is a conversation piece.
– In Japan, fruit is a common and appreciated gift. A square watermelon makes a very interesting gift.
Some learnings for ministry:
– Make sure a unique or interesting package (change of appearance or presentation) doesn’t affect the content or message.
– Don’t make changes that are just for a limited few.
– It may be good to make something unique if it starts a meaningful conversation.
– Look for a simple solution to the original problem (for watermelon, is there a better, more efficient way to ship and store the fruit?)
Sometimes innovation doesn’t solve the original problem, but can provide new and different opportunities. Nevertheless, even in failure it usually provides something to learn.
Thanks for these super solid thoughts, Greg. I agree with you that LEARNINGS are so important in any innovative experiment. In your previous role as the leader of new product development for a major global company, how did you and your team capture learnings to fail forward?
Great question Marcus! One of the first things we were diligent about was “killing” projects when they needed to end. This took discipline because part of innovation is tenacity and perseverance; however, it is also important to move on. For the projects we killed, we had a post mortem and a wake. The post mortem would dissect the project to determine the cause of death and the wake would celebrate peoples work and what we’d learned.
As importantly as it was for killed projects, it was as important for projects that successfully went to market. For these projects, we would have a postpartum discussion and party. Even with successful projects there are always things that could go better. So, the postpartum discussion would examine what we could have done to better birth the project, and the party would celebrate success and what we learned. As you can see, honesty in analysis and celebration are integral elements to both failed and successful innovation.