Generations and Innovation

by Barry Camson

I witness with great wonder the new approaches to innovation and how these approaches are being utilized by the Millennial generation.

I am a Baby Boomer involved for many years in building communities of people, helping people to work collaboratively in teams and helping them use an inspiring vision to find common ground and facilitate change. In doing so, I was acting as a messenger of the times.

Each generation makes its unique contribution and develops its own approaches and tools to respond to the challenges it faces. With luck what each generation creates is transferred into the societal mainstream.

This is not without some familiar dynamics. The younger generation says that the status quo must change. They say, “Why are you still doing things this way.” The older generation resists, can’t quite figure out the new approaches and says: “Things have worked well in the past, let’s keep on doing as we have done. Sometimes these words are expressed. Sometimes, they exist as unarticulated thoughts.

There is in all of this a period of transition which profits from intergenerational conversation and shared activities. Someone recently said, “To be a real entrepreneur you have to understand what has come before you.” The converse is also true. You must be mindful of what comes ‘afterward.’

A salient dynamic of the Millennial generation is a reluctance to submit to any monolithic institution as the sole venue in their Jewish identity formation experience. They do not tend to be joiners of such institutions.

The Millennial generation is one in which each individual is empowered by society, by the resources provided by their parents and by technology to proactively pursue their unique set of needs. Because these needs are quite specific, no such offering is often available in the Jewish community. Because the needs within each person are diverse, no one institution can meet them all. I discuss this in my previous article, “The Seventy Faces of a Congregation.”

These needs are often to find relevant ways to further their Jewish identity or to better the lot of others (both Jew and non-Jew) in the world.

The Boomer generation saw the solution to meeting needs as “creating collaborative community.” The World War II generation saw it as being part of a larger institution. Generation X saw it as being engaged with a values based organization where they could be recognized and have observable impact. The Millennials see it as being both the producer and consumer of innovative responses to unique needs and utilizing their relationship in networks with others.

It is not surprising that the individual and networked passions and talents of the Millennial generation find expression in agile, social and business start-up ventures. Specific methodologies support the incubation and acceleration of such ventures. Design Thinking which came out of the Stanford Design School and has been popularized by IDEO is one of the key methodologies. (A description of Design Thinking can be found here.)

Jewish organizations which focus on creating and supporting Jewish start-up ventures include: PresenTense, PresenTense Israel, Upstart Bay Area, ROI Community, Joshua Venture Group and Bikkurim.

Our interactive Internet technology along with the facilitative efforts of organizations such as ROI Community enable individuals to locate others with complimentary skills in building these ventures. In the past, this function had to be played by large institutions. ROI Community as well as the other organizations cited above support developing leadership competencies to lead in a venture-based world.

Just as contemporary innovative methods and start-up ventures enable the younger generation to develop new solutions, larger institutions played this role in the past. Taglit-Birthright Israel is an example of a large-scale institutional solution to the challenges of the time, based on the vision of a large-scale impact on the Jewish people.

The larger societal issue is that we live in a complex system built and maintained by each of these generations. What we cannot afford to have are approaches of one generation divorced from the efforts of the others. We ought not to be creating a society where each generation is the sole beneficiary of their particular historical solution. We should be building a Jewish communal society where wisdom of the older generation is integrated with the exuberance and ambitious ideas of the younger ones. We should be creating conversations that span generations. Examples of this are the role of mentors in PresenTense and of reports by Jumpstart.

Our Talmudic tradition where sages are free to comment on the writings of past sages, even on the same page, shows that we as a people are adept at integrating the approaches of each generation.

The key here is for the older generation to ask what about these approaches (Design Thinking, Lean Start Up, Business Model Canvas) can be of use in solving contemporary challenges. At the same time, the younger generation can be asking: how can having a vision, building community, working in teams be useful. (Use of the Business Model Canvas is illustrated here.)

Another more complex challenge is how and if the institutional response of the past can integrate with the venture-based, entrepreneurial response of the present. Some organizations like PresenTense have already been moving on this path as they seek federation support (e.g. Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston) and scale as well as access to partners from institutions. Similarly, some institutions are recognizing the value of smaller scale, more agile initiatives to test out ideas and respond in today’s niche market in Judaism.

The ongoing question of what comes next after a Birthright trip to engage young Jews over the longer-term is an area where all of these different approaches may be helpful. Can we create a contemporary design lab where multiple generations collaborate bringing in a variety of perspectives to respond to this challenge.

What should we be doing?

  • We should be fostering and funding multi-generation conversations where the innovative approaches of the past and present can be shared.
  • We should be overt in articulating the assumptions on which the past and present solutions are based so we can determine where and when a given solution is most appropriate.
  • We should seek to be aware of the challenges of the future that the current teen generation will have to face. Here are some questions that come to mind:
  1. Once we have significantly increased the number and kind of Jewish ventures, how will we create coherence in this innovation ecosystem?
  2. How will we support the individual with so many choices to create internal coherence in their individual Jewish identity formation?
  3. Will many of these ventures exist as part of a network? If the networks of tomorrow begin to supplant the role of the large institutions of today, what kind of infrastructure will these networks require?
  4. How will large institutions transform themselves so as to reflect the solution sets of multiple generations and what will be the leadership model in these institutions?
  5. Finally and most significantly, what will be the approach to funding in this changing world? How will we balance investment in risky endeavors with investment in established ones? How can we better manage risk?
  • We should be creating and funding design labs where Traditionalists (WWII), Boomers, Gex X, Gen Y, and teens can experiment together in seeking new solutions to engage people throughout the course of their life.

Barry Camson consults with Jewish institutions, businesses and networks. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com.