“Innovation”: What to make of a word that just won’t go away

By Todd J. Sukol
In the nearly 10 years since bestselling author and popular speaker Scott Berkun famously implored the world to “stop saying innovation,” we in the Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit world show no sign of heeding his sage advice.

Scott, whose credits include the bestseller The Myths of Innovation, makes a nearly irrefutable case that the word innovation has lost meaning and become noise pollution. Instead, he encourages focusing on developing ideas for solving significant problems rather than finding exciting adjectives to describe those ideas.

So why is it that some of the most passionate, sincere and talented people I know in Jewish nonprofits keep returning to the innovation trope? Are we a bunch of gushy romantics, repeatedly working ourselves into a frenzied lather of naïveté at each “next big idea” that comes our way? Or have we become allergic to hard work, victims of our parents and grandparents successes and good fortunes, in search of one shiny new quick-fix after another? Or could there be something deeper and more substantive at play that causes us to hang on so stubbornly to “innovation” as an ideal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am far from immune to the Jewish innovation addiction. I was an active participant in the birth of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), along with Mrs. Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation and our cherished colleague and friend Rabbi Shmuel Feld. I was in the middle of plowing my way through a daunting pile of books on social entrepreneurship at the time* and I stridently insisted that the word innovation MUST be in the name of the organization we were creating. I was an architect of JEIC’s subsequent partnership with Joshua Venture Group, which later merged with UpStart, whose mission is “inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.” If the Jewish world’s addiction to the word innovation is a pathology, I am surely among the diseased.

But is there a healthy way to be obsessed with innovation? Could it be, in fact, that innovation lies at the very core of what it means to be a Jew, a uniquely Jewish way of relating to the world, to each other, to ourselves and to the Divine?

In Judaism’s morning prayers, we praise G_d “who forms light and creates darkness.” This is stated in the present tense, explains Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, because G_d is perpetually creating the world. Judaism, in other words, sees G_d not as a being who created the world many years ago, but as the active, engaged Spirit who continually creates and renews everything in this world at all times. If we hope to align with this Spirit that guides the world and fulfill our highest potentials as humans and Jews, we too need to constantly refresh our relationship with this ever renewing G_d.

Jewish teachings repeatedly encourage us to “sing a new song” to G_d**. This suggests that while great value is placed on ritual in Judaism, there is also great value placed on bringing a renewed, sincere desire to connect afresh with G_d each time we engage in ritual.

Innovation as a state of heart and mind
I had the pleasure this week of sitting in a noisy Starbucks in New York City for nearly two hours with Stefanie Rhodes, executive director of Slingshot. Listening to Stefanie’s ideas about next generation philanthropy’s potential for the Jewish future, one gets the impression that Slingshot, known to date primarily for its annual Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, just may have its brightest days ahead.

As Stefanie and I were talking, it occurred to me that innovation in the Jewish corner of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector may be a sign that the Jewish ideal of renewal and rejuvenation is yet alive. Perhaps innovation in the Jewish nonprofit world is more than a utilitarian response to declining communal organizations that seem out of step with contemporary Jews. Could it be that creation of new avenues for Jewish engagement is an imperative for every generation, part of renewing our relationship to ourselves and each other as Jews, and ultimately to the Divine?

To be clear, I’m not excusing continued over-use of an annoyingly hackneyed word, nor am I advocating change for its own sake. The philanthropic and nonprofit sector has seen billions wasted that way, by decades of initiatives that lack well defined aims and strategies. But when the newness is intentionally directed to create “significant positive change,” as Scott Berkun would have us say, innovation – the concept if not the word — can become a powerful, positive engine, both for responding to contemporary problems and to renewing our very souls.



*Among them Bishop & Green’s Philanthrocapitalism, Bornstein’s profiles of early Ashoka fellows, Christensen’s testament to the power of disruptive technological innovation for reforming education, and Paul Light’s “Driving Social Change: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Social Problems.

**No less than five times in the book of Tehillim, Psalms, alone.

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