Innovation: Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

Participants in the Katz Innovation Summit held at Hillel International: Global Assembly in December Josh Traulsen (at left) and Allie Conn Kanter. Photo courtesy Hillel International.

By Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder

Innovation is a buzz word of late in our community. I keep hearing the argument that innovation is a “prerequisite” for Jewish programming, especially when the end users are the elusive post-college/pre-marriage crowd. But I suspect that the voices clamoring for innovative programs don’t fully understand the nature of this powerful tool, and when to apply it.

A new program or initiative doesn’t need to be edgy – unless it does. And if it does, then a surefire process must be in place whereby the right person is found, the right conversations are convened, the right backing is in place and the right message conveyed. And that’s where innovation comes in. Innovation in how we build and populate our programs is the key to success – how we operate, not just what we offer.

When we bring our demand for innovation to bear on how the essential conversations before, during, and after a specific program take place rather than only or primarily on the program itself, we have already succeeded. Just these kinds of conversations took place in December at the Katz Innovation Summit at Hillel International’s General Assembly.

The talented professionals at Hillel’s Office of Innovation and Penn Hillel used their best thinking to create an environment in which creative thinkers could put their heads together in an innovative way and have the kinds of conversations that bring success.

Just about every minute of the summit was curated, and this alone is innovative. We’ve all sat through so many meetings in which the task was to march through the printed agenda. How much attention is spent creating an environment in which people’s best thinking will emerge? How much focus is there on ensuring that everyone is relaxed and up-to-date enough to truly contribute? These are functions of curation, not agenda. It takes awareness, courage, versatility, good will, patience, creativity and so much more to curate an encounter rather than simply plan a meeting.

Let me provide an example. As soon as the first session began and we were broken up into groups, our first activity was to make a list of everything that holds us back from implementing our best ideas in the workplace – without knowing why we were doing it. Even within the five allotted minutes of that conversation, one could sense a shift from external factors – phones, interruptions, other staff members – to internal ones – fear of failure, limited creativity, exhaustion.

And then, once we had made the list, we were told to set aside everything on that list for the next activity: imagining the Hillel of the future.

Permission to imagine without fear is not always granted in the nonprofit space. And when we are having important conversations, we need to be able to do so without anxiety.

Temporarily free of our obstacles, we did the work of starting to imagine the Hillel of the future. And much of our vision was, in fact, “externally innovative” – funding structures, mobile classrooms, specialized and well-trained professionals, specialized personalized modular programming. But we also realized that we wanted an old sage sitting in one of our rooms, because people in every generation, regardless of how hip they are, want a cup of hot cocoa and someone wise to talk to now and then, and that will never change.

When I hear a program or approach described as “innovative,” I assume that word is shorthand for an event that will inevitably be and feel contrived. But the most innovative programs do not need to be described as innovative, because they simply work. All the innovation happened behind closed doors to get the right people in the field, in the right framework, with the right backing.

Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder is the Senior Jewish Educator at MIT Hillel.