Bringing Innovation into Mature Organizations

Successfully bringing innovation into a mature organization starts with creating openness to real change.

by Laura Fish and Nanette Fridman

Across North America well-established Jewish organizations are working hard to retain their relevance and build their reach. They are competing in an increasingly crowded field for attention, time and funds – sharing space with a growing cadre of newer organizations. This struggle has led some organizations to rebrand, or change membership or allocation models in an effort to incorporate some of the best practices of start-ups into their organizations. Our view is that successfully bringing innovation into a mature organization starts with creating openness to real change. It is then necessary to understand the audience, feed a culture of innovation, build a process for testing, and finally, to measure outcomes and evaluate success. In this way, organizations can further engage their core constituents and also potentially attract new, or younger, participants to their programs, or donors to their cause.

This article will explore what innovation means for a mature organization and suggest some concrete steps toward incorporating sustainable innovation.

What is Innovation?

In the Jewish communal context, innovative is often interpreted as “less” than what was traditionally done – less expensive, less centrally organized, less content driven – or less religious. However, in any context, real innovation means developing interesting, original ways to deliver substantive content and meaning. This can, and should, include delivering meaningful Jewish content and connections in a novel manner.

At its most successful, innovation creates a culture that encourages risk taking and can help an organization become fertile ground for new ideas. It can also help reduce barriers of cost, time or commitment.

Setting the Stage for Innovation

For established organizations, it is important to first create the conditions that allow for innovation and to overcome bias towards the status quo. Professionals and community stakeholders of well-established groups have an often unspoken, and perhaps even unconscious, preference for keeping things as is. However, the mere fact of having done something the same way for many years is not a good enough reason to continue doing it in that same way – even if a change upsets vocal stakeholders. As Grace Hopper said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.” Enlightened leaders, even if they do not see themselves as innovators, certainly must understand the danger and opportunity cost of doing business as usual.

To make sure an organization is open to change and looking to address an identified challenge, leaders need to bring the organizational stakeholders along through community dialogue. For example, in Montreal, Federation CJA invited community members to participate in a strategic visioning process called Imagine 2020. The process, which included many focus groups and multiple volunteer committees, resulted in the broad understanding that change was needed on many levels and a recognition that old ideas were no longer allowing the organization to continue to have the impact it could have. This dialogue then helped make room for change and innovation across the organization.

The Steps of Innovation

a.1. Innovation as a Mindset

Innovators dream big. They think differently and are not afraid to take risks. An organization that wants to adopt innovation as a mindset must encourage its leadership to challenge common wisdom and assumptions. The key questions for those looking to disrupt the norm are: Why? Why Not? What If? and How? Gradually, the flexibility and openness to change will spread throughout the whole organization.

In the business world, start-ups often rely on ‘perpetual beta’ to encourage the introduction of new big ideas. ‘Perpetual beta’ refers to the release of a program or product to market before it is perfect, knowing it will have flaws. Feedback is then incorporated into the process of seeking feedback and making changes in a timely manner.

For a well-established communal organization, this means launching programs or using methods knowing that they will not be perfect. Organizations that can move ideas quickly through the beta phase and not only tolerate, but expect and learn from failure, are able to create a mindset of innovation.

a.2. Know the Audience

The best innovations are developed to address an existing problem that a specific sub- or micro-community faces. Once this problem has been identified, it is essential to understand everything about the target audience. If the organization does not know a lot about the demographic it is trying to reach then it must get to know them. For example, to learn more about millennials, it is essential to observe their behaviors, to understand their mindset, and to research and solicit their ideas through surveys, town hall meetings and other forums.

From idea to design to testing your program, engage your prospective customers. As much as you seek to understand the target, you don’t know until you test concrete ideas and programs in target market and get feedback.

a.3. Feed the Innovation Culture

Where will all the ideas come from? Some organizations have answered this by giving the responsibility to one person – creating a chief innovation officer. Although this may bring some success, it is not a long term solution. Innovation is not a discrete task. Rather, successful organizations enable innovation to imbue the entire organization.

One key is hiring people who have innovation in their DNA. (See Harvard Business Review’s “The Innovator’s DNA” by Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen© 2009.) The authors suggest five discovery skills separate true innovators from the rest of us: associating, questioning, observing, experiments and networking.

It is also possible to train professionals and encourage innovation through associating and networking. Associating is connecting seemingly unrelated questions and problems. For established organizations, this may look like providing solutions to challenges people face through a Jewish lens. For example, a Federation, JCC or synagogue providing programming for aging parents relocating near their adult children and grandchildren as they need more care. Another example may be offering support, guidance and Jewish perspective for teens as they cope with the “race to nowhere” with increased pressures in high school and for college acceptance.

The second essential skill for those who want to innovate is networking both inside and outside the field. The Jewish community has a bad habit of having conversations with ourselves. We need to go outside the field, talk to diverse people, travel and attend conferences held by organizations outside of the Jewish communal norm.

Beyond your own staff, we should solicit ideas from others by having creative community think tanks, making creative micro-grants available, hosting “Shark Tank” forums where people compete for funding for ideas and also allocating money to different existing stakeholders on task force or committees to spend on an innovative idea.

a.4. Build Innovative Processes

Amir Give’on of, a crowd-funding site, uses prototypes from his engineering background to determine what a target community likes. He cautions against surmising in a committee meeting what will be attractive to others and instead suggests, “Do something real simple to learn about a big thing.” Following this logic, before a committee decides to launch a new International Jewish film festival, rather than jumping ahead and planning a week-long festival, plan a single viewing to test if the audience is interested.

This type of testing, which can be used as part of the perpetual beta method discussed above, can allow an organization to make sure that programs will be well-received and investments of time, energy and dollars are well used. The innovation then has a higher chance of success and, with positive reinforcement, innovation has a better chance of growing.

Crowd funding sites, like Jewcer, have the added advantage of helping people feel that they are part of the initiative. Contrast this with traditional programming where an organization plans an event and then tries to attract people. In a crowd-funding campaign, people are asked to buy tickets in advance and only enough tickets are sold ahead of time does the event proceed. The innovative process is gaining popularity, especially in the Jewish communal world. The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island recently announced it will be launching – a crowd funding website for Greater Rhode Island’s Jewish community.

Another benefit of crowd funding is the ability to leverage an organization’s dollars by combining a grant with crowd funding.

a.5. Defining SuccessMeasure and Evaluate

From the onset, it is important to determine what success looks like for a particular innovation and what metrics will be used to evaluate whether these goals have been achieved.

For example, if the goal of the innovation is to encourage post-Bar Mitzvah teens to attend Shabbat services, one metric for evaluation would be to measure the number of people in this demographic who attend services over a two-year period after the innovation is introduced. This data would then be used to determine if the program has achieved its particular goal, as well as helped fulfil the more strategic priority of continuing to engage Jewish teens. By developing concrete proof of the success or failure of an innovation, the organization can continue to show the impact that innovation is having, and thereby, make it a more sustainable part of its culture.


Weaving innovation into the fabric of existing and long-standing organizations in a sustainable way can be a challenge. Being clear about what innovation is, determining your motivations, overcoming bias towards the status quo and targeting a specific challenge to tackle are pre-requisites for success. Subsequent goals should be adopting the right mindset, identifying your ideal audience and generating ideas from those on your team and externally. In order for the innovation to have real legs, you must build a process, define success with measurable metrics and embrace perpetual beta while striving for constant improvement and being accepting of failure.

Laura Fish, LL.B./B.C.L., is the Chief Strategy and Planning Officer at Federation CJA in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Laura can be reached at

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development and governance for nonprofits. Nanette can be reached at