How Do You Sustain Innovation?

by Cyd B. Weissman

New questions have to be answered at every stage of the innovation cycle. Nine years ago, when we set out to transform the synagogue school from a place that teaches “about Judaism” to the headwaters for lived Judaism, we asked: “What capacities does a synagogue need to make change?” Since then The Jewish Education Project in partnership with The Experiment In Congregational Education has been uncovering answers to questions like “How do you break the mold? What’s it take for innovation to spread? How do you assess success?” Now that congregations have actually created innovative models of learning and assessment we have a new question. Over fifty synagogues in NY, known as the Coalition of Innovating Congregations, are asking: “How do we sustain innovation?”

The literature on sustaining innovation is depressing. According to business and educational studies, the majority of innovations sprout long enough to be seen as the next good thing only to be devoured by organizational stasis. To stave off the mighty lion, the status quo, we are learning to use a worthy weapon: Results. Have them. Share them. Hit the head and the heart.

To master the art of reaching the head and heart of stakeholders you have to work at the nexus of evaluation and marketing, a zone where most congregational leadership teams don’t dwell. I confess, neither do I; but we’re learning.

Stories to the Heart

This past week close to 150 clergy, educators, teachers and lay leaders from The Coalition of Innovating Congregations gathered at City Winery in New York City to sharpen their skills in communicating the results of educational innovations (e.g. models that are more camp than school, learning in the city and home instead of the classroom, Shabbat family celebration in real time).

Deborah Grayson Riegel, an international communications expert, helped us speak to the heart. “Know your audience,” she instructed, “think through what you want your stakeholders to do, to know, to value and connect with.” So, team members from Community Synagogue of Rye, for example, spoke about wanting financial support from their Board for their model of small group home learning, family holiday gatherings and Skype Hebrew. Temple Beth Sholom of Roslyn – who have an “everyone is a mentor and everyone is a mentee” model that includes regular family Shabbat celebration – talked about needing to impact prospective parents. “We ask a lot of families [to participate]. And for them to say they want to participate, they need to see what can result.”

To move Board members and prospective members to action, Grayson Riegel said stories told from the heart would go to the heart. Getting the punch in the punch line requires a certain kind of story telling. So each congregation used a template for storytelling highlighted in Jonah Sack’s book, Wining the Story Wars, called the Hero’s Journey.

The template helps the listener follow the learner through struggle and eventual triumph in a way that is memorable and deeply moving. The congregations also watched a three-minute video that illustrated the Hero’s Journey at one of our congregations, made using the template:

The video capture’s Zoe’s remarkable story, and showed how this young teen was able to overcome an immense challenge with the help of Kane Street Synagogue’s L’tzedek Model, where children turn learning into social action as a compass for their daily lives. Zoe’s story, one of many, goes right to the heart.

Headlines from The Coalition of Innovating Congregation’s Stories:

  • security and relationships with a caring mentor
  • helping others through social justice
  • found a place to belong
  • Noah blossomed into his own person
  • Became a mentor to other youth
  • Gained self confidence and a sense of responsibility
  • They are always asking: what more can we do?
  • He found a community
  • He performs mitzvoth that speak to him and are relevant to his life
  • Emily said she felt more like herself here

Data to the Head

When battling the status quo, stakeholders also want to see the cold hard facts. Congregations have needed to develop their ability to collect the facts and then beautifully and thoughtfully present them.

When congregations are putting energy into creating new models and using new methods of education design and assessment, it is easily understood why they wouldn’t have the energy for collecting data. And yet, we know it is essential. So we created tracking tools that congregations use to collect data over time. These tools then equip the congregations to mark over time things like how many children/families participate in an innovative model; how many hours of professional development educators participate in, and what percentage of children continue post b’nei mitzvah from an innovative model vs. the traditional Hebrew school model.

Our experience shows that it is very hard to get agreement on what data will satisfy stakeholders. However, maybe not surprisingly, one result that is shared by many congregations is how well a child and family will be connected to one another and to the congregation. To this end, we created a survey that measures this outcome. Over a dozen congregations, across movements, have administered a “connectedness survey” three times during the last two years. This survey measures the growth and change in families’ connections to one another, and to the congregation. Congregational teams analyze the results, with support from our staff, and are able to show stakeholders the difference between connections expressed by families in their new model vs. the traditional Hebrew school model.

What’s next?

Once you collect the data you need to present it powerfully. As of June 1, we are posting tools that enable congregations to use their stories and their numbers effectively. We are posting on a tool kit that includes ready made “press releases” and “presentations” that wrap around their hero’s journey stories and collected data. This tool kit includes a two-minute movie, ready for viewing now, used by Coalition Congregations to communicate the unique value of their innovations.

The work we face now is to sustain the innovations. Boards and lay leaders need to say yes to resources. Families and learners need to say yes to engagement. To do this Coalition congregations are innovating in one more area: Communicating Results to the Head and the Heart.

Cyd B. Weissman, Director of Innovation in Congregational Learning, The Jewish Education Project works to reshape the landscape of Jewish Education in New York. Generous funding by UJA Federation of New York enables the groundbreaking work of The Coalition of Innovating Congregations. Cyd teaches Curriculum and Assessment and Organizational Change at Hebrew Union College’s School of Education in New York. Follow her blog at