Breaking The Myths of Innovation

by Bill Robinson

Well, it’s a beautiful summer day here in Reisterstown, MD as the fellows and faculty of Project InCiTE take the first steps toward tearing down the myths of innovation to which we have succumbed over the last decade.

Fifteen years ago, I entered the world of Jewish education as a full-time researcher for arguably the first national philanthropic initiative – Mort Mandel’s Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) – bringing innovations from general education into a moribund Jewish world. Today, I see our world filled with dozens of new philanthropic initiatives offering innovative solutions for engaging Jews. Great strides have been made and yet at times all seems to remain the same. Everyone is still searching for the next great innovation.

We have increasingly placed our faith in entrepreneurial, talented, young people, whom we hope can bring us new words of torah from afar that can save Jewish education. Nowadays, this idea seems common sense. Who else could be as innovative? Yet, it is our blind acceptance of this mythology that is at the root of our enduring inability to create new, powerful ways of engaging today’s adolescents and young adults.

The InCiTE fellows are not entrepreneurs in the popular image of dot-com start-ups. They are not living hand-to-mouth, trying to create new programs and organizations from nothing. They work in established institutions, which have committed themselves to finding and supporting new ways of engaging youth. Hope Chernak comes from Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan and Rachel Winkler works at Yeshiva of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School. They’re not entrepreneurs; they’re intrapreneurs – making use of the valuable resources of their existing organizations to further innovation.

The InCiTE fellows may or may not be more talented than any other Jewish educator out there. That’s not the point. What separates them is their willingness and capacity to try things they never have before, to leap into success or risk failure, and learn more about themselves in the process. Alan Jay Sufrin brings his knowledge of educational technology to the BJE of Metropolitan Chicago. He also creates projects for the Chicago Coalition for Inter-Religious Learning, as well as producing music for Stereo Sinai. Working with the Israel group S.I.T., fellows are being taught new tools for thinking creatively within the confines of what is actually feasible. In our post-gilded age, an essential ability!

The InCiTE fellows are not all young and new to the field. They range in age from early 20’s to 50’s and have been in the field from 3 to 33 years. If we look at the world around us and who have been the great innovators – from Thomas Edison to Miles Davis – they are not inexperienced (or mildly experienced) young adults. These were masters of their discipline with the ability to go beyond that mastery. Innovation typically emerges out of a deep understanding of one’s field and the tools of one’s trade, not from the naïveté of an apprentice or outsider.

The InCiTE fellows are not doing it alone. They are forming the vital social networks among each other that time and time again have proven essential for innovation whether you are creating the iPod or a new educational program. As Rob Cross has commented in Driving Results through Social Networks:

“The term innovation usually conjures up an image of a brilliant employee or sequestered team creating the next light-bulb, sticky note, or software program. Too many companies today hold to this heroic vision when, in fact, this is not how innovation usually happens. The legendary story of 3M’s Post-it-Notes is one of collaboration and evolution that unfolded among research scientist Spencer Silver, product developer Art Fry, and countless others. Even Thomas Edison’s success depended on a team – from fifteen engineers in his Menlo Park laboratory to financier J.P. Morgan to men such as Samuel Insull who grew the utilities that made electricity a profitable business.”

Project InCiTE – a collaboration among BJENY-SAJES, UJA-Federation of NY, the I-Center, in cooperation with Makom – assumes that we each have torah in our hearts and in our hands. We only need the institutional support, the creativity tools, and the networks to cultivate innovative ways of engaging today’s adolescents and young adults.

It’s only the end of the first full day of Project InCiTE. Minds have been stretched, social connections have been formed, new ideas are emerging. To follow along the journey of Project InCiTE, join the Facebook page and check out their blog.

Together, let’s see where this myth-breaking endeavor takes us and what fruit it brings forth.

Bill Robinson, PhD, is the Chief Planning and Knowledge Officer at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York – SAJES. He formerly worked as the Director of Education and Research at the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Bill continues to cultivate innovation that makes Jewish learning meaningful and relevant in contemporary society.