Monday, October 10, 2011

Steve Jobs, the Consumer, and Inventing the Jewish Future

Of all the recent retrospectives of the late Steve Jobs, the one that has had the most impact on me contained the observation that he “hated traditional market research”.  It was a comment made by one of the guests (advertising consultant, Cindy Gallup) on the public radio show “The Take Away” on Friday, October 7. You could hear the entire recording here.  Mr. Jobs believed that successful marketing and production must be customer centered, but that consumers don’t really know what they want. He believed in what Alan Kay once said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”    According to author Steven Johnson, also on the same show, Jobs understood that a product’s design incorporated usability.  It isn’t just what the product looks like; it’s how it can be used by the consumer.  Jobs’ genius according to Johnson, was that he believed that when designing a product,   “the totality of the experience of using the product” must be part of that design process.  So what do we, as Jewish educators and innovators take from this?

The iPod was created to fill a vacuum. Its creators saw what was trending in the business of music: (napster and clunky mp3 players) and created something new, thereby creating demand and changing the way we listen to and buy music.  This is the paradigm that could work for Jewish education.

When we design a Jewish experience, we need to remember that there is a delicate balance between the goals we set as educators for our constituents, and their desires and needs.  Franz Rosenzweig was right when he taught us that the periphery leads us to the center.  Whatever Jewish experiences we develop, they must relate to where our students and families are today. It can’t just look cool.  They need to be practical, useful and accessible. But therein lies the dilemma.  Do we, as Jewish leaders, design experiences that we believe will serve the purpose of (and forgive  me for using this phrase but it actually is apt) Jewish continuity, or do we develop models that may, in the short run, seem appealing, but in the end, add nothing to creating a  Jewish future?  Another way of asking this question is: Do we want to fill a vacuum (like the iPod did) or do we want to enhance the already existing empty space of ideas that lead nowhere?

Following Steve Jobs lead, what we design must be multifaceted, and  informed, though not determined by conventional wisdom.  Just because an idea is popular doesn’t make it The Truth or The Answer.  We are on a narrow bridge, and need to make sure that we don’t fall off into the chasm of irrelevance.  The subtlety is following the teachings of Steve Jobs in creating a synergy between what we design, how it works and our roles as leaders.

So we need to pay attention to what’s trending in our congregations and communities.  Parents are busy.  Kids are overwhelmed.  There is a drive to create models of juvenile Jewish education that can fit into our overscheduled families’ lives. The question is….will these experiments really lead to a Jewish tomorrow?  Is “fitting in” enough? 

Collaboration, construction of knowledge and finding personal meaning are all guidelines that need to shape what type of Jewish experiences we design.  We need to master the tools available to us in the 21st century, both digital and experiential to make Jewish life to enhance the usability of the “product” we design. The role of a Jewish professional is to learn from conventional wisdom and then apply knowledge and experience to invent a new future.