Disruptive Innovation as a Framework

It’s important to note that innovation in a Jewish context does not mean making up something new out of whole cloth, but rather drawing on the authentic traditions of our past to create experiences that respond to the exigencies of our present moment.

by Rachel Cort

In last week’s essay, I suggested that a major challenge for the Jewish community is the fact that many professionals working to engage Millennials bring their own assumptions, norms and values to bear on experiences meant to engage the unengaged. The first competency that I would like to recommend to these professionals is an understanding of disruptive innovation as an approach uniquely suited to taking on the challenge of engaging those who are currently not participating in Jewish life.

While the foundation of Jewish life is often assumed to be tradition, innovation is actually also a significant Jewish value concept. As Yehuda Kurtzer writes in his wonderful book Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, “at the core of Jewish expression is innovation. Innovation, as opposed to creation and creativity, entails the assertion of the new in the framework or with the language of the old.” I would add that innovation can also be understood as an assertion of outside influences in the framework of what is “inside” the tradition. This capacity for synthesizing the new and the old, the “inside” and “outside,” is why Judaism has been able to survive as a singular idea, despite the widely ranging variations of practice across Jewish communities, throughout space and time.

It’s important to note that innovation in a Jewish context does not mean making up something new out of whole cloth, but rather drawing on the authentic traditions of our past to create experiences that respond to the exigencies of our present moment. I believe that it is entirely possible to create new and resonant Jewish experiences that respond to the rapidly shifting paradigm of Jewish identity in North America, while yet still generating a sense of internal continuity with the systems of our heritage. This has happened time and again in Jewish history, and such a tradition of innovation is not ours to forget at the present moment. Understanding how innovations work, and in particular the role of disruptive innovation, is an important step in understanding how to create new rituals, experiences, social and organizational forms that might take root with Millennials and thus become an important part of the Jewish future.

Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School distinguishes sustaining innovations from disruptive innovations. Sustaining innovations foster improved product performance for an established customer, but they are not paradigm changing. Disruptive innovations, while they initially foster worse product performance in the the eyes of the established customer (disruptive innovations are less sophisticated and lack certain features deemed important by the established customer), gain a foothold with an underserved market (in our case, Millennials) because they are simpler, more convenient and easier to use. Over time, these initially lower ­quality products evolve­­ becoming more sophisticated, delivering more value and eventually capturing the entire market, including the initially resistant established customer. Think about the example of Amazon, which started off as an online bookseller that appealed to a small audience of early­ adopter internet users, and then evolved into an “everything store” that has disrupted traditional brick ­and ­mortar retail outlets and created the new paradigm of online shopping that we know today.

So why didn’t Barnes & Noble, or Target, or even Walmart ­­the dominant retailers of the 90s­­ come up with Amazon? Christensen’s extensive research shows that companies with an established or dominant product experience great difficulty in creating disruptive technologies and and especially in bringing them to market. As he explains, “The very processes and values that constitute an organization’s capabilities in one context, define its disabilities in another context.” Established companies can only resolve this problem “when new markets are considered and carefully developed around new definitions of value­­ and when responsibility for building the business is placed within a focused organization whose size and interest are carefully aligned with the unique needs of the market’s customers.”

So what does this all have to do with Jewish communal life? “Judaism is not a product,” people say. I agree that it isn’t ­­from the perspective of those of us who are already committed to it. However, it seems clear that young Jewish adults are approaching Jewish life as a product to be consumed (or not), and until Jewish life wins a young person’s commitment, they do interact with it as if it’s product. Using knowledge borrowed from the business sector might allow us to make a qualitatively better and more in­ demand “product.” The framework of disruptive innovation is an excellent starting point for doing so.

In Christensen’s articulation of how established companies become trapped by their own paradigms and definitions of value, I see a clear analogue to the problem I articulated in my introductory essay: the experiences that draw many young Jewish professionals to this field are the very reasons why our field is struggling to connect with unengaged Millennials. Jewish professionals experience great difficulty in abandoning their own paradigms, and their definitions of Jewish value may vary greatly from those they seek to serve. For this reason, I believe that Jewish professionals should be well ­versed in disruptive innovation ­­because the key to tapping the market of unengaged Millennials lies in identifying their definitions of value, even if that means putting aside our own.

In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen addresses the question of how we can know whether an innovation falls into the disruptive or sustaining category. He recommends asking a simple question: Is new thing X sustaining an already existing market, or is it serving an entirely new market? A question that Jewish professionals might ask themselves when planning experiences meant to engage the unengaged: “Is this Jewish experience something that I would personally find meaningful?” Paradoxically, I want to suggest that if the answer is yes, perhaps it’s time to reconsider that experience’s utility as a tool for engaging the unengaged. Perhaps that experience is better suited for young adults who are already deeply comfortable with Jewish life.

Building Jewish experiences around our own definitions of value will not only fail to engage the vast majority of Millennials, but may actually alienate them. This is a conclusion I’ve drawn from my own experiences, but it’s supported by a wider constituency of Millennials that have already voted with their feet.

Understanding how disruptive innovations work ­­and how established paradigms get in the way of innovations­­ is the first step for professionals who are trying to see through the eyes of an audience which has differing experiences and definitions of value. In my next essay for this series, I will write about the need to master the skill of design thinking, a critically important method by which Jewish professionals will gain insights about the audience they seek to serve.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.