Change or Die: Why Traditional Organizations Must Innovate

a guest Op-Ed by David Bryfman

In recent times I have been in a position to ask various groups of Jewish educators and communal professionals to come up with new ideas – specifically innovative ways to engage Jewish teens in meaningful Jewish activities. Perhaps not surprisingly, brainstorming alone did not deliver any out-of-the-box ideas. In the vast majority of instances people are only able to conjure events from their own experiences – ideas may be tweaked or adapted – but at the end of a day very rarely does something qualitatively different emerge from these group think sessions.

So what do these experiences tell me? If I were to believe much of the general discourse in the Jewish community it might lead me to conclude that not everyone (or maybe specifically not Jewish educators and communal professionals) can be innovative. Only those who are young upstarts can be innovative, and traditional institutions have little or no capacity to innovate. Yet the reality on the ground tells me something very different.

In this current economic climate one of the more common sound bytes is that now more than ever is the time to be creative and to innovate. The assumption being, that those who are creative will succeed and those who are not will fall by the wayside. One of the more troubling parts of this discourse has been the scarce attention paid to what it really takes to be creative. In understanding better what creativity and innovation really are, we can better grasp not only who can be innovative, but who has the capacity to become creative.

The process of creativity has been described as an act that human beings undertake to produce new ideas, or memes (units of information), that are necessary to acquire if a culture and society are to continue to evolve. Innovation is the process of not only generating these creative ideas, but also being able to apply them in a practical way – often within an organizational structure.

In practical terms the difference between creativity and innovation is important because it acknowledges that all innovators must engage in some level of creative thinking, and simultaneously recognizes why many creative minds stop short of becoming innovators. Such a distinction also helps us to de-bunk two critical myths that have recently surfaced within the Jewish community.

Myth #1: Innovation and Creativity cannot be taught
While I have heard countless times that you either have creativity or you don’t – this simply isn’t true. The moments when an individual has a light bulb go off to discover something new are rare. Rather than wait for these random sparks, organizations should invest in the cultivation of creativity and innovation. This process is not the same as brainstorming and it can be taught. Coming up with new ideas is not easy but there are several models in place in a variety of industries and disciplines that train people to be more creative.

Myth #2: Traditional organizations cannot be innovative
If creativity can be taught then it should follow that organizations who employ creative people, or train their people to be creative thinkers can also be innovative. However, as our definitions showed us creativity does not always lead to innovation – and so organizations must also consider how to translate their creative thinking into innovative practices. Organizational structures, even if they seem limiting at first must adapt if they want to transform themselves. The good news is that many of these organizations already have solid infrastructures and can therefore invest heavily in developing creativity while simultaneously adapting as their thinking develops. Unlike many upstarts who struggle to raise the resources to turn the lights on, traditional organizations, whose priorities demand it, can invest more of their time and resources in cultivating innovation rather than in developing an infrastructure.

All of this being said it must be recognized that the dichotomies between young and old, upstarts and traditional institutions in relationship to creativity are false and simplistic. If the right investment and training is placed in developing creativity then many more individuals and institutions would be able to achieve their capacity to adapt, transform and survive in what are undoubtedly testing times.

Jewish education, perhaps more than any other sector of Jewish communal life, is suffering. And while the current situation might seem bleak for many, one of the other catch phrases being bandied around must also ring true – that now is also a time for incredible opportunity. But this opportunity is not just born out of economic crisis. It is born out of the fact this economic crisis has uncovered what many of us have suspected for many years. The organizations that service our Jewish youth are decades old. So much has evolved since most of our communal institutions were created yet their infrastructures and approaches have barely adapted to these changing times. And we wonder why so many regard our institutions as irrelevant. Creativity and innovation in Jewish education in particular is not the opportunity, it is the necessity.

Only by learning to become creative and innovative will many Jewish organizations be able to survive in these difficult times – not just in order to continue their legacy, but because they will have been able to transform themselves into the most necessary and relevant institutions in the Jewish world today. No less significant, on an individual if not communal level, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found, in adapting his famous theory of “flow,” engaging fully in the process of discovery is also one of the most enjoyable activities that a person can be involved with.

David Bryfman PhD, is the Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the 100 year old and innovating Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York-SAJES, which has recently launched Project InCiTE – Innovating Creative Teen Engagement (in partnership with the iCenter, and cooperation with MAKOM and SIT-Systematic Inventive Thinking) – training Jewish youth professionals to be creative thinkers and innovators within their respective institutions.