“Apple is regularly voted the most innovative company in the world,” writes The Economist in its January 30 edition, “but …rather than developing entirely new product categories, it excels at taking existing, half-baked ideas and showing the rest of the world how to do them properly.”
Creating economic value – or, beyond the corporate world, social value – isn’t always about big ideas, nor new ones. Improving on what’s already out there often is a more reliable way to produce results. New ideas are important drivers of change, but broad transformation depends on the scaling, replication, and adaptation of existing models with demonstrated promise.
Much attention has been paid to the expansion of the Jewish startup sector (what we have called the innovation ecosystem) because it seems to be a manifestation of a communal will to reinvent Jewish life for a new century. The unfortunate side effect of the craving for something new is that existing organizations – even ones just a few years old – sometimes drop off the buzz meter of Jewish life just when they most need stronger support to achieve sustainability.
None of this is to say that starting something new isn’t often an easier path than trying to transform an existing institution or grow one from a venture to a going concern. The barriers are low and the market is growing for bootstrap approaches to building Jewish community. For example, take the proliferation of independent minyanim and spiritual communities over the past decade or so. They are celebrated as leading innovators in 21st-century Jewish life, and rightly so. But the idea of a group of people who come together to learn, pray, celebrate and support each other is nothing new. What’s new in these Jewish emergent communities is in the “how” more than the “what”: how they are organized, use technology or engage new populations.
We believe that the cumulative force of a series of tiny effects can create systemic change. That’s what happens in an ecosystem: countless small-scale ideas and pilot programs with the potential to get bigger, to multiply and evolve, to be adapted and reshaped and shared around the world.
For funders, that means continuing to seed experimental new ideas but allocating a greater proportion of their portfolios to the longer-term work of harvesting, harnessing, and expanding promising new pilots with demonstrated initial impact.
For not-for-profit leaders, it means growing creative capacity not just in vision and program design, but in implementation and assessment. It means honesty about what works and doesn’t. It means sharing operational resources and space to extend the impact of every investment and create opportunities for collaboration and mutual learning.
For volunteers and participants in Jewish programs, it means critical loyalty – not bouncing from one new thing to another but taking the risk to become a stakeholder, to stick around and do the work of making new programs good and good ones better.
For all of us, it means accountability, transparency, and above all humility about experiments that fail and an open-source approach to sharing ideas. It means celebrating when someone else makes an idea work even better. It means not launching duplicative projects just because we can – and not ignoring great projects just because they were someone else’s idea.
As the title of this blog series suggests, there is no one big new idea that will transform Judaism and Jewish life for the better; no doubt there are many more than 28. Just as Apple reinvented itself in the wake of the massive expansion of the internet and wireless connectivity, so, too, must organized Jewry remake itself based on the radical democratization of choice and self-determined social networks. Whatever the goal – to advance Judaism’s global contributions to 21st-century society and culture, to broaden and deepen Jewish literacy, to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people – there’s a good chance that the best models to achieve it are already are out there somewhere, waiting for us to find them.