Organized Chaos and Giving Up Control: 2 Keys to Social Enterprise Innovation
Serbian-American inventor Nicola Tesla dreamed of working for the greatest innovator of his time: Thomas Edison. And in 1884, Tesla did just that. Yet, he quit Edison’s Machine Works after a mere six months.
It is somewhat unclear why Tesla quit his dream job, but many cite Edison’s assessment that his ideas were “splendid,” but “utterly impractical,” prompting his company’s rejection of Tesla’s proposed alternating current (AC) electrical grid. What we do know for sure is that when Tesla left Edison, he became an entrepreneur. He found investors to support his ideas on alternating current and by 1888, he received over 30 patents for his inventions that shaped the design of the modern AC electricity supply system. He changed America’s industry and our way of life. When you see Tesla cars on the road, think about the young immigrant entrepreneur who didn’t give up on his ambitious ideas that others considered “crazy.”
Many organizations are too often focused on established paradigms. As a result, they miss unique opportunities to leverage organizational talent and opportunities to reinvent their industries. At the Israeli-American Council (IAC), the nonprofit that we founded in 2007, we strive to make sure we don’t miss the “Teslas”; and we have created a laboratory for experimentation in the field of social enterprise.
We create a safe space for intrapreneurship: the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization.
The IAC has become the fastest-growing Jewish organization in America, expanding from a single location to 18 offices across the U.S. in just a couple of years. We are active in 27 states and on more than 90 college campuses, with hundreds of community leaders and volunteers. In our early days, our ability to be agile was simple and intuitive. Today, maintaining an innovative and learning organization that is so widespread, flat and diverse is a whole other challenge.
“Balagan” is the Hebrew word for chaos. “Big balagan” is, for example, “big chaos.”
IAC Council member Dror Aviely, who is based in Boston, shared with me the term “organized balagan” to describe how Israel and Israelis operate. I have adopted the term because I believe it is a fitting description of where we want to be.
To drive the innovation that advances an organization’s mission, it is critical to create clear boundaries, while simultaneously providing a safe space for ideas to go wild. For us, “organized balagan” represents a rapid and structured innovative mechanism. It is the way to foster intrapreneurship.
Initially, we asked each of our IAC regions to create their own programs. The result was quite a balagan—a small taste of the biblical Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1-9), in which God confounded humanity’s speech so that they could no longer understand each other and build a tower tall enough to reach heaven.
Many IAC programs—even those carrying the same name—had minimal connection, uniformity and consistency. It was difficult to make sure our national vision was shining through at the regional level, and it seemed impossible to drive change or measure success.
Our solution came through the creation of the “buckets,” dividing all our programs into nine organizational frameworks that are professionally researched, developed, implemented and measured. The research, development and performance measurement for the buckets are centralized and are directed from the IAC’s national headquarters. But the implementation of the programming is decentralized, enabling creativity for each local community, within a clear set of guidelines. Furthermore, each bucket is constantly reviewed and shaped by feedback from the different regions.
Yet this was not enough. When we moved to the buckets system, our board of directors felt the need to leave more space for innovation and creativity. That is why we set the “12 percent rule,” allowing each IAC region to dedicate up to 12 percent of its resources to a local initiative. The only requirements are that the local initiative is directly related to the mission and strategy of the organization. In a sense, we created multiple internal “incubators” for experiments, driving accelerated innovation.
We also established the concept of “the space in-between” to describe everything that happens in-between the “buckets”—where we cultivate innovation by the community, for the community. We developed a mechanism that creates the space and resources for this community innovation, mainly through our program, IAC Gvamim, which ties leaders in the community to our IAC ecosystem.
This is how we created “organized balagan.” We established clear rules, while leaving room for innovation.
Giving Up Control
Social innovation within an organization also necessitates giving up some control. This unleashes parts of an organization to move in strategic directions that the executive leadership may believe are wrong—at least on the surface.
In our Las Vegas chapter, a group of volunteers and professionals came up with an idea for a new program focused on language learning community. The plan went in the opposite direction that the organization as a whole was heading. Experts and educators advised me that the proposal was doomed for failure.
I debated the issue with my regional director, bringing up all the reasons why I thought the program wasn’t a good idea. The regional director, a classic intrapreneur, pushed back against me, the CEO, arguing her case intensely. I paused the argument and conceded, “You might be wrong, but this is your 12 percent. It is your space to be wrong.” I surrendered control.
Well, I was wrong. The program turned out to be a tremendous success that completely changed the way we look at building language learning communities. We have since looked to adapt this program’s model and scale it nationwide, turning an entire “bucket” upside down.
There is a risk in giving up control. Many of these “experiments” end up in failures. The “organized chaos” can work as long as you have the stomach to accept and admit failures. The next article in this series will suggest methodologies to balance the desire to be efficient and conservative with resources, while learning to make failures part of a successful organization’s culture.
When you look at your team, always keep in mind Nicola Tesla. It is not easy, because the “Teslas” are usually pushing you outside of your comfort zone, but those are also the people who can turn your organization into a game-changer.
Shoham Nicolet is the founding and present CEO of the Israeli-American Council, the fastest-growing Jewish organization in the U.S. He is an entrepreneur specializing in educational technologies and community-based collaborative networks.