Why It’s So Hard to Scale Success (And What to Do About it)

Photo courtesy Columbia Pictures

By Dr. Rob Weinberg

“I’ll have what she’s having.” In the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, this is what the woman at the next table tells her waiter after Sally simulates physical ecstasy in the middle of Katz’s Deli. The classic, hilarious scene demonstrates the logic behind the elusive desire to “scale success.” If only, the logic goes, we could replicate what those who are successful do, we would be successful too. But that doesn’t always happen. Why not?

I’ve spent much of my career wrestling with this question. Let me share what I’ve learned about why it’s so difficult to scale success in Jewish education, what strategies are most promising, and where we might go from here.

Scaling success is what the organizational research literature calls “diffusion of innovation.” It shows up under a variety of popular guises every decade or so. In the ’70s and ’80s it was about “critical incidents”; in the ’90s, about benchmarking best practices; and in the current decade, we’re all abuzz about “bright spots.” But let’s look at what it takes to identify these bright spots and to diffuse or scale them, examining how those conditions match with the realities of Jewish education.

First, we need to know what success is. For as long as I’ve been involved in Jewish education the debate has raged about what constitutes success. Is it assimilation prevention, Jewish literacy and ritual competence, Jewish identity formation, informed Jewish choice, lifelong engagement in Jewish learning, or adopting Judaism as a pathway to thriving in one’s own life and striving for creative responses to a changing world? Educators face a dizzying and unattainable plethora of expectations from parents, board members, clergy, donors, and the learners themselves. Often what accompanies innovations in congregational education is a new and welcome conversation about what the desired outcomes ought to be. Yet without clear and shared outcomes, how can we identify which practices are successful?

Second, once we agree on outcomes, we need to measure those outcomes to determine which practices were successful. Dr. Jack Wertheimer was neither the first nor the last to recognize the incredible dearth of research evidence on outcomes in Jewish education, particularly in the congregational context where most of my work has focused. If we can neither define nor measure success, how can we purport to scale it?

Third, we need to agree on what it is that we seek to “scale.” The foremost scholar of diffusion of innovations, Everett M. Rogers, defines an innovation as “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption.” But Jewish education is complex and multifaceted. Jewish educational innovations are more like what Rogers calls “technology clusters,” in other words, bundles of innovations packaged together in which it is difficult to “determine where one innovation stops and another begins.” Take Mayim – the innovative congregational education model at Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, Massachusetts – as an innovation we might wish to scale. What aspect of it is the innovation? Is it their tailored application of project-based learning? Or is it mifgash, their adaptation of Morning Meeting from Responsive Classroom? Or their experimentation with Hebrew Through Movement, learner choice, or flexible scheduling? Or is it the welcoming, relational environment they create by having a volunteer receptionist stationed near the door to welcome each child by name or a half-dozen other identifiable aspects of Mayim? Different congregations may perceive various aspects of a multifaceted innovative model as new for different reasons.

In addition, Jewish educational systems are often embedded in broader (e.g., congregational) systems that are, themselves, embedded in communities. Thus, innovation in congregational education requires not only behavioral change but also complicated systemic and social change, which run up against long-held practices, investments, and attitudes. Scaling success requires not only introducing the innovation itself but also a surrounding process of psychological and social transition to supplant existing skills, habits, and behaviors. All of this must take into account the context of socially mediated and constructed cultural norms, beliefs, and assumptions.

Although many who advocate scaling seem to regard it as a technical challenge, it is clearly an adaptive one. Dr. Michelle Lynn Sachs has written about the social legitimacy of the paradigm of schooling as an impediment to change – colloquially I often talk about this by saying, “People only know what they know.” The yardsticks against which they measure a new educational approach or model are old yardsticks designed not only to fit old educational “technologies” but to measure old outcomes.

These conditions and more suggest that the spread of “successful” innovation is likely to be slower than any of us would like and to fail more often than we’d like. So what are the promising strategies and where can we go next? Some shareable lessons I have learned about scaling innovation:

Teach Them to Fish: Experience teaches that it is more important and productive to build innovative capability than replicate specific educational innovations. In a constantly changing world and ever-evolving field, diffusing a particular innovation may offer little more than a recipe for repeated obsolescence. Educational models and practices no longer have the century-long shelf life of the supplementary school model introduced by the Benderly Boys. Rather, educational leaders need to build their innovation muscles to innovate repeatedly both to come closer to enacting their educational visions and to be continually responsive to the changing needs of learners and families. Success is a moving target.

Adapt, not Adopt: Second, successful scaling is a matter of adaptation rather than adoption. In my work with colleagues at the Experiment in Congregational Education, we developed an Adaptation Continuum that extended from Adaptation, or Modification, at one end of the continuum to Mix and Match in the center to Inspired Redesign at the other end.

To explain, consider your options when purchasing a new home. You might purchase an existing home and redecorate a bit (Adaptation). You might purchase a home and remodel the kitchen to be more like one you’d seen in another home and the bathroom in the style of yet a third home (Mix and Match). Or you might decide to build your own home from scratch, drawing design ideas from multiple places and inspiration from specific architectural styles and principles (Inspired Redesign).

Intentionally not included on the two ends of the continuum are direct replication (copying) and complete ignorance of existing practice. The former rarely succeeds due to the differences among organizations (effective diffusion requires a certain amount of reinvention). The latter is simply wasteful. It requires complete reinvention without benefit of others’ experience and learning.

Its the Principle of the Thing: Stanford University Business School professor Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer once wrote: “Don’t copy what great companies do, copy how they think.” Rather than seeking to implement universal best practices, we should seek to learn from and apply best principles. Rather than copying educational programs, we should seek to implement 21st-century educational-design principles and broad categories of practices (such as project-based learning), but tailor them in a way that suits each educational setting and its respective unique qualities.

Hows the Fit?: Before introducing an educational innovation, first seek to understand the social system and the communal and organizational norms – the indigenous belief system and how compatible the innovation is with it. Deliberate and successful innovation can’t be like a one-way message; it has to be more like mutual convergence around meaning. Consider the social relationships that impact adaptation of an innovation. Who is eager to please whom? What networks are relevant? Who are the social models, connectors, and opinion leaders whose involvement and endorsement might lead others to lend their support? Who are the change agents and are they perceived as similar to or aligned with those who must accept or support the innovation? Finally, are those supporting the innovation coming from an innovation-orientation or a “client” orientation?

If we have learned anything from the application of Human Centered Design to innovation in Jewish education, it is the importance of focusing on the needs, wants, pains, and gains of the users (learners and their families), as well as the secondary audiences of decision makers and influencers. Successful scaling of innovations depends on knowing the ground into which you will plant the seed and choosing seeds you know are compatible with the conditions in the field.

Shout it from the Rooftops: Jewish educational innovations are largely hidden in plain sight. Educators exert above and beyond effort to keep their educational programs running and introduce innovation at the same time. They lack time, energy, funding, and channels through which to publicize and tell their stories. Further, our values in the field promote modesty. Those who go out of their way to blog and publicize are worried about being seen as boastful grandstanders. We need new and robust channels to share innovations—both innovations in Jewish educational practice and, more importantly, innovative principles and the contextual characteristics behind them. Some efforts exist to share online but more and more robust channels are needed. Flat, two-dimensional descriptions don’t cut it. We have to find ways to bring innovators into dialogue with one another. In one such example, Rachel Happel of Temple Beth Shalom took participants in Chicago’s CHIdush project on a “virtual visit” to the Mayim program, making it come alive and interacting to share vision, motivations, principles, and experiences and answer their questions.

Crawl Before You Walk; Walk Before You Run: Finally, policy makers, foundation professionals, federation leaders, and others need to keep in mind the complexity of that mission. We need to be prepared to scaffold the process of innovation and adaptation with training to build innovative capacity. We need to share so-called bright spots not for purposes of replication but for inspiration and confidence building.

We also need to engage the wider community in the conversation about the real purposes of Jewish education in the 21st century and to build buy-in to new yardsticks for success. We need to fund serious professional learning for educators to stay current with 21st-century educational principles and practices and then scaffold their process of adapting those principles to Jewish education.

Lastly, we need to be patient and supportive if and when early efforts at innovation fail. We need to regard these as part of the learning process, not an invitation to pull the plug. Scaling success in Jewish education is a marathon, not a sprint.

If we learn our lessons and do it well, scaling success is less about “I’ll have what she’s having” and more about “I need to know what she knows and what she knows and what he knows.” Only by looking at successes and learning how they were achieved will we really learn how to accelerate innovation that builds (and continually rebuilds) compelling Jewish education.

Dr. Rob Weinberg serves as a coach, consultant, and facilitator helping individuals, teams, organizations, and networks to find clarity, chart direction, and navigate change. Current clients include Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. Previously Rob served for 16 years as national director of HUC-JIR’s Experiment in Congregational Education. He holds a PhD in Organization Behavior from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.