Building the Innovation Community

by Eric Levine

Many of us have followed the dialogue about innovation with intense interest, especially discussion about insufficient funding and the demise of organizations in the Jewish innovation sector, such as J-Dub. Over and above this specific case, we should all lament the passing of innovation projects. I had an experience of my own many years ago (too many!) when I created a student-led organization providing social support and friendly visiting to homebound elderly Jewish adults in the South Bronx. Looking back, that start-up (and I) would have benefited tremendously had we been a Bikkurim resident project. As readers may know, Bikkurim is the model par excellence of a non-profit incubator for groups with new Jewish ideas, vision and entrepreneurial spirit, providing a physical home as well as intensive support, technical assistance, and access to professional and organizational networks. Alas, this was well before the Bikkurim days. Fortunately, the program was absorbed into a synagogue because there was limited available financial support from local donors and this was prior to the appearance of elite Jewish funders and foundations inclined to support such emerging projects.

Fast forward to 2009 when I had the privilege of attending a think tank in Toronto, led by Jumpstart and others, on building the Jewish innovation ecosystem. I was inspired by the passion and vision displayed by the next generation leaders in the room. I came away convinced of the necessity of supporting this broad enterprise.

However, I want to remind us of the realities of organizational existence. For better or worse, good organizations come and go. And we all agree that there are some organizations that should close down! I have long been fascinated by the process through which new organizations, social movements, networks and others emerge, grow and either become established or wither away. As lamentable as the closing of J-Dub may be, there are multiple examples of international, national and local organizations that experience the halcyon days of popularity only to fail later on. In some cases, they morph into new organizations and in others they decline and eventually disappear.

One only has to think of the closing of the American Jewish Congress, CAJE, synagogues, day schools, fraternal societies, Yiddish organizations, Zionist groups, teachers colleges, professional associations and many other cases. Many of these groups were the symbols of innovation of their time. And this process is repeated throughout society at large. So this recurrent pattern should not be a surprise to us and the fact that Jewish groups in either the innovation system or in the more traditional sector falter or close is a given. Arguably, the rise and decline of ideas and organizations is the sign of an ever-evolving, ever-changing and hopefully ever-growing vibrant community.

But the core message of innovation is crucial in so many ways and should not be ignored. Further, the Jewish community must find ways to further develop the innovation ecosystem. The challenge, as always, is how to balance the need to support the ongoing educational, social welfare, religious and other venerable causes while nurturing the spark of innovation. All this in times of economic turmoil.

In fact, there is another aspect of innovation that warrants serious discussion in Jewish communal circles. Gary Hamel is a management thought leader who talks about the dire need for innovation in fundamental everyday organizational structures and work processes. He notes that much of modern management practice dates back to the late nineteenth century, and has run its course. He maintains that unless organizational leaders confront a number of grand challenges, organizations will be unable to cope with the world of tomorrow.

For Hamel, innovation means getting away from “best practices,” which actually box in and limit thinking. Innovation means coming up with bold, totally new models and ideas. I note just a few of his points that I find compelling:

  • Eliminate the pathologies of formal hierarchy
  • Increase trust – reduce mistrust and fear, which are toxic to innovation
  • Democratize decision making and expand the scope of employee autonomy
  • Dramatically reduce the pull of the past; all too often organizations mindlessly reinforce the status quo
  • Unleash human imagination, promote collaboration and enable communities of passion

For the Jewish community, I firmly believe that innovation needs to be a communal reflex and embedded deeply into the fabric of our organizations at all levels. By that I do not mean how we improve specific programs, events, or projects. By the way, that is important, too. But our goal should be to create a two-pronged communal commitment to reinvent how we structure and manage the internal operations of our most basic institutions, a la Hamel, as well as seed innovative projects and organizations at the same time.

To ignite the spirit of innovation, our organizations should be investing in a sustained self-reflective effort to examine why and how we run our operations and seek to discover, prototype, test and disseminate new solutions for organizational structure, process, decision making and outcomes. Properly done, a sweeping innovation “project” has the potential to trigger broader, even transformative change, so that we may be better able to confront the challenges we face in creating inspiring, engaging and effective organizations and communities of meaning and purpose.

Lately, I have found myself reflecting on the words of Yankee great Yogi Berra. Yogi was not only a great baseball player but a bit of an armchair philosopher. Yogi has been quoted as saying that “predictions are hard to make … especially about the future.” This “Yogi-ism” seems especially poignant as our community introspectively works its way through the month of Elul toward the arrival of 5772. All signs indicate that while we do not know what the future will bring in Jewish communal life, the window of time to get there feels rather short. As our community continues to change and evolve, creating and sustaining a culture that embraces both management innovation and a vibrant innovation ecosystem will help us get there.

Dr. Eric Levine is Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the Touro College and University and has been an adjunct professor for over 20 years, teaching courses in ethics, organizational theory, management and the Jewish community. Interested readers can learn more about management innovation by accessing these sources: and Hamel, G. (2009). Moon shots for management. Harvard Business Review, 87, 91-98 (February).