Enabling a Culture of Innovating

How might we change our robust Jewish communal landscape by changing our innovation culture as well?

disruptive-innovationBy Taylor Epstein

Living and working in Silicon Valley, I hear the word “innovation” on a daily basis – at the grocery store, at the gym, even at Friday night services. Companies are hiring Chief Innovation Officers and foundations are creating new grants specifically for innovation. The word is used so much, but I’m not sure we all define it in the same way. Is it innovative because it’s new? Not necessarily. Is it innovative because it utilizes technology? I’m not so sure. The overuse of the word, perhaps, is a product of the misuse of the word. As all educators know, it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. And, in this case, it’s not about innovation – a product or outcome; it’s about innovating – a process of building, measuring, and learning.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 Lean Startup Conference – a full day allowance to geek out over new research to bring back to UpStart’s Jewish social entrepreneurs. The highlight for nearly everyone there was business theorist Alexander Osterwalder’s new tool to catalyze a strong culture of innovation in any organization. As I looked around, I noticed that many of the conference attendees were not entrepreneurs, but were actually representatives from established, large-scale companies – intrapreneurs who hope to create a culture shift within already established organizations. So I wondered – how might we change our robust Jewish communal landscape by changing our innovation culture as well?

In a time when the Jewish community is deeply contemplating how to reassess and re-engage, the key is not just to find the good ideas, but to invest in the modes of thinking that will help generate them. Osterwalder calls these modes of thinking “enablers.” For example, rather than saying “we should create x,” we should instead be asking “how might we design better solutions for our customers’ needs?” Osterwalder would call fulfilling the expectations of predetermined outcomes or static business plans innovation “blockers” – if the destination is all that we are looking towards, it’s a lot harder to experiment on the journey.

Therefore, I ask… how might we intentionally create a Jewish communal culture that enables innovating – that not only supports risk taking, but also expects it; that rewards learning from our failures; and allows for pivoting from our original ideas?

  1. Be a risk taker
    Lech lechaGo, take risks, leave your comfort zone. All great entrepreneurs are acting off of a hypothesis that they offer a simple way to address the needs of their customers. Your hypothesis may be risky – and that’s a good thing. Rather than throwing all of your resources at one large solution, we are taught to fail fast and create small opportunities to experiment with ideas. You have to think outside of the box, and then prove yourself wrong; and, you never know – your crazy idea just might work.
  2. Encourage Learning
    Na’aseh v’nishmahLearn by doing. The ultimate goal of an innovator is to learn about the needs of customers, and then design for the ultimate user experience. However … how often are program staff stuck in the rut of producing with no time, resources, or focus for learning from the past? How can we enable processing of feedback, data, and metrics so that we can better iterate on our design? As Eric Ries, founder of the Lean Startup says, we need to be “making decisions based on evidence, not opinion.”
  3. Change the mindset
    KavannahLiving with intention. The ultimate sign of an innovator is someone who leaves the ego at home and embraces turning away from their original idea. After taking a risk and learning from the experience, you may find that the answer is … try something different. You may not get it right the first time (or second…), and that should be ok. We have to be intentional, giving ourselves permission to experiment, invent, and live in the unknown.
  4. Be bold
    Ometz LevCourage, strength of heart. Tenacity is the catalyst for ingenuity. Having the courage to question “what has always been” so that you can envision “what might be” is the true task of the intrapreneur.

What kind of behaviors do we want to see in our organizations that enables a culture of innovating? And, how might we all play a role in this – from leaders to donors to community members – so that we create a ripple effect through the entire community? Share with me your thoughts … I’d love to learn more.

Taylor Epstein is the Interim Program Director at UpStart, overseeing the UpStart Innovation Center located at the Oshman Family JCC. Taylor received her Master’s in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University, and has been a Jewish communal professional in the Bay Area for over 12 years.