A Case for Interruption

“Knock knock!” “Who’s there?” “Interrupting cow.” “Interrupting Cow wh…” “MOO!”

I always get a kick out of that one. My sister’s preferred variation is “interrupting starfish,” which ends with an open palm smooshed into one’s face.

In his June 29th post “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: Key Questions on Jewish Innovation, Interruption, and Sustainability,” Seth Cohen raises the question:

“how do we ensure that…Jewish innovation isn’t interrupted?”

But I wonder – what founder of an innovative nonprofit hasn’t looked up from her desk and been stopped in her tracks by an interruption, hand smooshed into face and all?

Innovation, as defined by Felicia Herman, the Executive Director of the Natan Fund, in her recent article “Funding Innovation,” means “identifying a gap or hole in the system that no one had noticed before,” and creating something new to address that need.

Innovation often stems from an “Aha” moment, defined by psychologist John Kounios and cited in William Safire’s latest New York Times magazine piece On Language: “An‘aha’ moment is any sudden comprehension that allows you to see something in a different light.” This type of comprehension, and the ensuing process of doing something about it, must, to some extent, grapple with interruptions – tensions, challenges, and failures. As Neil Simon says, quoted Safire’s article, the “aha! can be the first part of an incompleted sneeze.” Try explaining that one to a funder.

Amongst the questions we need to ask in the sector of Jewish social entrepreneurship is: how do we foster innovative Jewish programs and organizations that are elastic and flexible enough to withstand the inevitable interruptions and make a lasting impact on the Jewish world?

One tool that can help us navigate and withstand interruptions is the capacity to “hold steady.” Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, in an article entitled “Leading with an Open Heart,” explain this concept: “Confronting major change generates a great deal of conflict and resistance. Managing the conflict, dealing with the politics involved, and making people accountable requires an ability to hold steady in the heat of action.”

If you are a funder, what work do you need to do to, as Herman puts it in her Lesson #2 on Funding Innovation, take risks and tolerate failure? If you are the founder of a new Jewish nonprofit, what work do you need to do to avoid chasing the money, and stand strong in your organization’s mission and passion? If you run an established Jewish institution, what work do you need to do to examine whether or not your work is relevant and meaningful, and, holding steady in whatever emerges, begin to explore new pathways. And how can we, as a Jewish community in general, hold steady in the tensions between our denominations, generations, and institutions new and old, to explore what they teach us, and use that data to work towards a shared, sustainable purpose?

These interruptions are part and parcel of the process of innovation, and it is the extent of our ability to hold steady as they rage around us that will determine our success. We must learn to stay in the discomfort long enough to understand what the interruptions – often self imposed! – are teaching us about ourselves and our community.

Cohen implies a dichotomy between interruption and sustainability. He cautions: “we may find that our innovation is interrupted and – for a people concerned with its survival – we need innovation that is sustainable.” I would argue that interruption – an inevitability in innovation – is a contributor to sustainability. Those individuals and organizations who can tolerate interruption, hold steady in it, learn and grow from it, are, in fact, the individuals and organizations that will ultimately succeed.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities. Maya is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.