What a relief!  Finally (and none too soon), I can stop brainstorming and thinking “out of the box” in order to be innovative in my work, in my society, and maybe in my private life as well.

Guess what!  Brainstorming doesn’t work. For years we have been told that in order to innovate, to create something new, to create new paradigms and models for identifying solutions to public needs, for coming up with new technologies, new methodologies, new ideas, for finding new models to address the social issues we deal with in our work, we need to brainstorm, to think out of the box, to throw out all the understandings, experience and learning we have garnered during years of working in the public sector.

Our recent Wexner Israel Fellowship Alumni Institute was devoted to the subject of innovation. We were fortunate to have Amnon Levav with us as scholar-in-residence.  After many years of experience and study of innovation in industry, Amnon has developed a methodology and process of systematic inventive thinking, a disciplined “inside the box” approach to generating new ideas:  listing the essential elements of a product or service, and manipulating these elements to come up with something new.

Thinking out of the box is out, being innovative is in: thinking and acting differently in a useful and effective way. The challenge is: how do you keep professional knowledge but break fixedness?

Although most of the examples in the innovation model come from the world of inventing new technologies, many of us “Wexnerim” found the methodology applicable to our work, to our commitment to improving services for the Israeli public.

It makes sense. What innovation methodology is saying is: start with where you are, with  what you know, with the ideology you believe in, your objectives,  your experience, with the resources you have, the obstacles as well as the potentials, with your goals for creating social change.  Learn from your failures, not just from success. Innovating inside the box means using what you have in a different way.  The parameters are all there, many of the resources already exist: what we need to do is to be flexible enough to think creatively in order to be innovative in making changes.

Innovation was in the air during the three days we spent together in Haifa.    Appropriate to the subject of the institute, The Wexner Foundation has itself been engaged in a structured process of innovative thinking with regard to future directions for the Wexner Israel Fellowship program:  during the Institute, President Elka Abramson shared a vision for a new, strategic, short-term public leadership program, related to the particular challenges and core needs defined by Israel’s public service. “There are no old roads to new directions,” said Elka.  

And, for the first time, a Wexner Alumni Fellowship prize was presented, the culmination of our new initiative for encouraging innovative proposals in Israel’s public sector.  The chosen proposal was a project for integrating the ultra-orthodox into the public sector.  Roi Kedar, who did a great job heading the Institute’s planning committee, summarized the challenge many of us Israeli Wexner Alumni feel :  “without the ability to innovate we can’t build a public sector in Israel which will meet the challenges our society is facing.”

One of the interesting concepts Amnon talked about was metacognition:  thinking about the process, the strategy of your thinking, where do you put new ideas?  For the exercise at our table, we discussed the project I’m currently working on: developing a model of integrated, managed care for the elderly in Israel. We realized that the very deficiencies of the fragmented system in Israel — the various organizations, services, procedures and budgets that exist today — are also its strengths, within which exist great potential for service integration.  While we always tend to think of the need for increased funding for new programs, the real source for change lies in the way we think, cooperate, and find ways to relinquish what may seem like inevitable bureaucratic  barriers in order to come up with a new paradigm for cooperation around designing a care management function.

I saw how this could work on a recent professional visit to San Francisco, sponsored by Israel’s JDC-ESHEL and hosted by the SF Jewish Family and Children’s Services, directed by Dr. Anita Friedman. In addition to enjoying the warm hospitality and exposure to new ideas in a broad array of programs for dependent elderly run by local organizations and government , which centered on care management, our Israeli delegation of representatives — from ESHEL, Social Security Administration, government ministries, HMO’s, and NGO’s — found a common language amongst ourselves and possibilities for creative cooperation.  As Amnon said, we need better information and insight, but what we need most is the ability to act on it.  

So, we’re trying to move into the box in order to identify innovative opportunities for change in Israel. Otherwise, as a Chinese philosopher once said: “If you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you’re heading.”

Brenda Morginstin, a Wexner Israel Fellowship Alumna (Class 4),  is an independent consultant and currently directs a program for Joint-ESHEL to develop a model of integrated care for the dependent elderly in Israel.  For most of her professional career, she worked at Israel’s National Insurance Institute (NII) in research and planning, regarding aging, disability and income maintenance, and especially in implementing legislation for providing benefits for children and adults with disabilities. She has also worked on Israel’s Long-Term Care Insurance program for dependent elderly and served as the director of Service Development at the NII,  working with government ministries, local authorities and NGO’s in a broad variety of projects for at-risk populations: the elderly, disabled, children and youth at risk, and families.  Brenda can be reached at brenmor3@gmail.com.