Troubling, to me personally, a heavy user of words, to advocate for the death of a word; not to mention the fact that I work part-time adjacent to the Partnerships & Innovation department at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and as a consultant for the ROI Community of Jewish Innovators. Most of my professional work involves being in and around what I once explained to someone was “the emerging Jewish innovation sector.” (The person’s response: “Huh?”) My attempt to name projects in this sphere as explanation – G-dcast, Birthright Israel, PresenTense, ROI, Jewcology, Hazon, Sharsheret – didn’t seem to help. I must have sounded like Hagrid, describing mystical creatures at Hogwarts.
A few years back at LimmudLA, I presented on the state of
Jewish innovation, citing
G-dcast, the Mission Minyan, Kehilat Hadar, Moishe House and Challah for Hunger as examples. A voice of dissent in the room claimed that these projects were not innovations. G-dcast is “just” the weekly Torah portion; independent prayer communities are “just” the reinvention of havurot; Moishe House is “just” group living, like a kibbutz and a fraternity combined; Challah for Hunger is “just” a bake sale. My argument back was that the sum of the product itself might not be innovative, but the lens, venue or methodology used to produce it is creative, in some way “alternative” to the mainstream culture of Jewish life, or directly reflective of contemporary needs and concerns, and that it was that kind of work that was emerging under the term “innovation.”
In the secular world as well as in the Jewish nonprofit sphere, an entire sector has sprung up that literally banks on this word to do its work. Nissan’s latest slogan is “Nissan – innovation that excites” (because it’s not enough to just have innovation, you have to also qualify it as ‘exciting’); and a recent Entertainment Weekly article reported that Sesame Street had brought in celebrities to explain certain words, including actress Paula Patton, who would be explaining ‘innovation’ “alongside a futuristic Elmo and a robot.”
As the term gains traction, it also creates a wake of dissent over its value. Articles in Wired, the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Stanford Social Innovation Review all recently indicated, we’re using the word ‘innovation’ too much. (For what it’s worth, BusinessWeek declared “Innovation” dead in both 2006 and 2008 but since has continued to use the word generously in its content.) Bill Taylor, in the HBR article (which contains links to the articles mentioned above), says that “the organizations […] that are genuinely innovative […] rarely use the language of innovation to describe what they do or why they do, […they change what needs to change, because it’s the only way they can achieve what they want to achieve.”
By using the noun “innovation,” we’re not paying due respect to the individuals who are thinking innovatively, who are creative and who are shifting paradigms with every idea. But by using it to describe people who are thinking, creating, crafting, writing, and inventing innovatively, we more accurately attribute the creativity not to some future amorphous product called “innovation,” but to the flesh-and-blood thinkers who - as individuals and as team leaders - are activists within their professional realms. These are the people who identify obstacles and them down, thinking outside the corporate culture-box if needed, so that projects don’t get stuck banging their figurative heads against figurative-but-nonetheless-frustrating walls.
So where do we go from here, in a world when “innovation” as a term has both its passionate adherents and vehement detractors (and is used to define more and more jobs, publications and projects)? Here’s a three-part suggestion:
- Kill the noun. Or if you’re too tenderhearted for word-killing, then you can allow the word to happily live out the rest of its days as a term emeritus, on a farm, its every need met, while it writes Overused and Misunderstood: Innovation Speaks…A Memoir). But stop using it. Or at least, stop using it to describe everything that's new to you.
- Use the word to describe actions, people or projects, but don’t overuse it. No one really knows what “innovating” is, since it differs across industries and projects, and because if you use “innovative” every time you see something newish, it diminishes the adjective’s impact. Also, describing someone as an innovator creates very high, perhaps unreachable, expectations. So use the term sparingly, when something is so unbelievable that it's undefineable by any other word in your verbal arsenal.
- Create the space in your work environment for fresh and creative thinking. This goal can exist on multiple levels – whether it’s carving out room to enable yourself to think more creatively without the looming presence of a deadline, or if you have the power in your professional life, to create this space for all employees. Embrace the attitude that enables you to envision a future for your project or passion that is responsive to the current moment, creates opportunities for personal connection, and creates change. That change may be radical or incremental, as long as it resonates deeply and creates a culture of passionate connection among human beings.
All that said, I acknowledge that the word “innovation” isn’t really going anywhere, at least not in the Jewish nonprofit world. And while this post fixates on the semantics of a term, what I’m really saying is that it’s not enough to “look for the innovation label!” when choosing your Jewish project or organizational affiliations. The existence of innovative people and projects presents us with a chance to open our eyes to new perspectives, attitudes and ideas, from radical sources or inspired by traditional ones. Innovation may not be best defined as the thing itself, but as the catalyst that helps us to move past obstacles and renew our efforts with fresh enthusiasm.