Hal Lewis’ Four Questions – A Response

If-not-us-who-If-not-now-when-Hillel-the-ElderBy Marty Levine

In his recent article, “Four Questions For The New Year About The Way We Do Business”, Hal Lewis exquisitely framed the dilemma faced by the Jewish community and particularly by those who have taken on the mantle of leadership.

A fifth question is needed: is it innovation or radical change that is needed?

We have long been aware that significant changes have taken hold in the American Jewish community, changes that often mirror those sweeping through the broader western world in which we are embedded. We have recognized that these new conditions challenge a communal organizational structure that has so successfully supported the life of American Jews and contributed significantly to the welfare of the our adopted country. Dr. Lewis reminds us that our people’s history is a story of innovation and adaptation to new and challenging environments.

Dr. Lewis’s questions force us to think more clearly about why with so much data before us for so many years we still seem unsure about our way forward and puzzled by the how our current efforts seem less and less successful.

Our success is our greatest weakness. We have been so successful that we have difficulty believing that we may not have today’s correct answers. We have been so successful that every change is very risky. And the strains caused by the changing world around us have not yet become painful enough to convince us that we are failing.

The operational question that institutional leadership is struggling with is just how serious are the threats we are facing? Will things settle down and return to “normal”? Or have we entered a new era where the rules of yesterday will no longer govern?

It is easier to act as if the world has turned upside down from the outside than it is from the inside because the risks of being wrong are so different. For those who are responsible for existing organizations there are real human costs to making the wrong choices. In a real world with limited resources these decisions require the wisdom of Solomon.

The experience of organizations in other rapidly changing sectors can illustrate the issue we face. At the beginning of the personal computer era data storage and portability were important areas of innovation. Competition was heavy to be able to store more data in media that was more portable. Leaders were faced with difficult choices of whether to invest in making improvements in existing technology that would incrementally improve performance or to invest in the search for new approaches which would leap to a new performance plateau. Few companies were able to do both. The constraints on existing market leaders were the risk of losing current success, a knowledge and skill base focused on the already known and an organizational culture attuned to working the current strategy. In order to seize new possibilities it was necessary to build an organization that was different on all of these dimensions and aligned with the new strategy. And when the next wave of performance took over the market place, organizations that had flowered soon became just memories. It seems that trying to be both old and new is difficult if not impossible.

We are seeing this same struggle take place as huge and very profitable oil companies are challenged by evidence of climate change. Should they be investing in developing new ways to produce energy that minimizes the need for the very carbon based fuels that they own and understand or attempt to leap to new, non-polluting technologies?

If this is difficult in settings where money is the major measure of impact, it is so much harder for those who are responsible for serving communities and people, where the stakes are measured in lives and beliefs and not just in profits and losses.

If the world we live in has radically changed then all of the assumptions that underpin our current organizational models, our service models, and our community models may no longer be valid. The change we will need is not incremental innovation but radical change. It will require new knowledge and new skills to create new approaches. And it will mean that for many of us the comfortable ways we work and we are served can be no more. Those who have supported an organization over time will have a difficult time seeing their legacy as no longer important. Those who are presently served in ways that are comfortable and still effective will resist the pain of changing to new and less familiar modes of service. Today’s leaders may be the wrong leaders for tomorrow. And those who may no longer be served at all will be pained.

Existing, successful organizations, are consumed with just doing the business they do in the way they know how to do their business. And if that approach is not yet in free fall, they may not have the ability to shift enough resources to developing more than incremental, evolutionary changes. They are constrained not just by their stubbornness but by their strong commitment to what they are currently doing and by the known impact they have on the lives of those they serve which they fear to risk. And in the world of human services, this means their clients who depend on them and their donors who currently support them. From the inside, the severity of radical change is fearsome. Too many people may be hurt in the transition, too many donors may walk away angrily. It is easier to try making small and incremental changes assuming that the world will return to normal.

It is not certain that our current organizations can make the leap that is required. It is quite possible in order for Jewish life to find its next moment, the existing communal architecture will need to fail and be replaced by new ventures that will emerge in the wake. The old will struggle to stay relevant but will fall increasingly out of step and ultimately fail.

Every one who cares about our Jewish future must struggle with this dilemma.

How long should our efforts be devoted to the process of institutional change? When is it time to recognize that current institutions will not serve the future? When is it time to conclude that we need something new and radically different? When is it time to shift our efforts and our resources to building the new structures of the 21st Century and beyond?

If not now when?

Marty Levine is a life long Jewish communal professional. He served as General Director of JCC Chicago until his retirement in 2013. He now consults to nonprofit organizations.