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  • Andres Spokoiny

The Next Big Thing, or the Next Near Thing?

Let’s declare a moratorium on new Big Ideas and look at the possible Near Ideas that abound in our community.


If I had a penny for every time someone talked to me about creating “the next Birthright” or “the next PJ library,” I’d be a millionaire.

While these aspiring innovators are well-intentioned, what many are really saying is, “I want to be the inventor, the genius that comes up with the next great idea.” At the base of this desire lies not only hubris, but also a radical misconception about how creativity works.

From childhood we are told the tale of the great, lonely inventor: Newton discovered gravity when he saw the apple falling from the tree; Archimedes exclaimed, “Eureka!” in the bathtub and invented a method for measuring volume; Edison’s had a “light bulb moment” and invented the incandescent bulb.

But while these stories work well for children, they entrench a false idea of how innovation truly works. When Edison “invented” the light bulb, he relied on 80 years of prior tinkering with electricity and incandescent filaments. When Archimedes plunged into his bathtub, he was leaning on two centuries of Greek scientific development. Nobody, except perhaps God, can create something out of nothing. “Invention” actually shares its etymological root with the word “inventory” because, in fact, we invent based on what we have. Innovation happens mainly through a slow process of combining and recombining previously existing ideas.

That doesn’t diminish from the genius of a Newton, an Edison, or a Da Vinci, but it reframes it. What those inventors did was to discover “the adjacent possible.”

The concept of “the adjacent possible” was developed by biology theorist Stuart Kaufman to explain how evolution operates. The concept was then adapted and popularized by innovation theorist Steven B. Johnson. Their insight is that innovation doesn’t happen “ex-nihilo” but rather emerges within a context that was prepared by previous evolutions. The “adjacent possible” concept captures both the limits and the creative potential of innovation. Imagine a chess board: there are countless possible combinations of moves, but all of them exist within the confines of the board and the rules of the game. The adjacent possible, in Johnson’s words “is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

The adjacent possible is a much more appropriate tool than the great, lonely inventor for understanding how breakthrough innovations happen in the Jewish community, and a better conceptual framework for those trying to come up with the next Big Idea.

Both Birthright and PJ Library – two programs that have impacted an entire generation – were cases of discovering the adjacent possible.

In the case of Birthright, the revolutionary idea leaned on decades of experimentation with trips to Israel. Many of these had been funded and led by the future Birthright funders themselves, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, and many had been undertaken by others (from The Jewish Agency to the universities). The genius of Charles and Michael was in discovering the adjacent possible by making the existing concept of the Israel experience into a near-universal experience for young Jews. Birthright is also an “adjacent possible” in terms of the participants’ behavior: young people were already in the habit of taking trips abroad during their formative years, and the brilliant adjacent move was to make Israel the destination.

The stroke of genius that led Harold Grinspoon to create PJ Library was sparked by Dolly Parton and her “Imagination Library” project. The “light bulb moment” was more connection than invention: what if we did this – a mass distribution of educational books – for Jewish children? The rest is history: 400,000 children are receiving Jewish-themed books through PJ library every month. As Charles and Michael had done with Birthright, Harold grabbed the coattails of on an existing habit. Parents already read stories to their children at bed time; Harold simply asked, “What if we made it very easy for parents to read Jewish stories to their children?”

Both programs also used partnership in an innovative way, a way which was itself an adjacent possibility. In other words, Birthright and PJ Library did not invent philanthropic partnership, but they created specific models that were both novel and functionally tailored to the changes they were seeking. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore it. Each new adjustment or combination opens up its own new possibilities. The adjacent possible never runs out; it’s always there waiting for us, just at the boundaries of our reach. So here’s my suggestion: let’s declare a moratorium on new Big Ideas and look at the possible Near Ideas that abound in our community. Forget “the new Birthright;” let’s explore the new territory that Birthright has opened up.

Of course, that approach requires being less territorial, and taking cues from voices we may not be used to thinking of as sources for Jewish philanthropic inspiration (such as Dolly Parton).

Discovering adjacent possibilities demands that we learn, with an open mind, what different players in the community are doing; it requires openness to sharing information and resources, and a flexible approach to organizational structures and processes.

Above all, it demands that we break down intellectual echo-chambers and create cognitive diversity in our organizations, with lots of opportunities for marginal voices to speak and be heard—because, usually, it will take somebody on the margins of a system to discover the possibilities that lie precisely at those boundaries.

Funders need to encourage this attitude both in the organizations they fund and among themselves. We must leave behind the childish idea of a lone genius making a sudden discovery and remember what Edison himself admitted, in a rare moment of candor: innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.

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