What is and what can be

This has been a very difficult week. This past Monday night and Tuesday the Jewish people commemorated Tisha b’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av) -- the day that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, Bar Kokhba failed in his revolt against the Roman Empire, as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 (among other tragedies). The day includes fasting, sitting on low stools and reading the Book of Lamentations (and other observances).

At the same time, this week we watched the news of the stock market’s wild ride, riots in the streets of England, continued mayhem in Syria, and horrific famine in Somalia.

In each of these cases, the challenges are part of the “reality of the day.” Yet, we continue to push forward and seek better times ahead.

A personal favorite “thinking authority,” Dr. Edward de Bono, wrote: “There are three basic aspects of thinking: ‘what is’; ‘what may be’; and ‘what can be.’ We are almost totally obsessed with ‘what is.’ We underestimate the extremely valuable contribution that ‘what may be’ has made to progress. We do very little about ‘what can be’ – even though our future depends entirely on this aspect.”

“What can be” for Jewish Portland is a subject I spend a great deal of time thinking about, as well as listening to others. I am still a relative newcomer to Portland and recognize how little I know about our community. Yet, since my arrival, I have challenged myself, the Federation Board, and our community to create a picture of a future – which may, in fact, look very different than today.

This is easier said than done.

I think back over the past decade and remind myself of great innovation success stories: Google, Netflix, and Skype (and in the Jewish world Birthright Israel) to name a few. None of these companies were created by the likes of “old” corporations like Microsoft, Blockbuster and AT&T. Therefore, I wonder why established companies struggle to find the next big thing before new competitors do? Perhaps it is because many companies become too focused on executing today’s business model and forget that business and technology continue to evolve.

I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review about the CEOs role in creating new business models. The authors believe that the most important task of any CEO (and Board) is to balance three forces: preservation, destruction, and creation. (FYI -- Hinduism recognizes many gods, but only three main deities: Vishnu, the god of preservation; Shiva, the god of destruction; and Brahma, the god of creation.) As one would expect, most favor the forces of preservation, while the forces for destruction and creation are pushed aside. This makes perfect sense – CEOs and Boards have short-term pressures, while at the same time they may be risk averse, resistant to change, or uncomfortable with uncertainty. In any case, this can lead companies and organizations to fail to transform themselves.

Socrates once said, “Before you can create, you must forget.” I believe that for our Jewish community to be successful, we must simultaneously manage our present condition, selectively move away from the past, and create the future that we want. These last two areas are not about what we will be doing in 20 years; instead, they are about the preparations we must make today

Organizational memory is one of our greatest strengths and challenges. As I mentioned last week, we have a nostalgic love for the great times we had in the past. However, we develop biases, assumptions and entrenched mind-sets which become further embedded in planning processes and organizational structures. Organizations may only focus on their existing (shrinking?) “customer base,” while forgetting the potential emerging ones (and their different needs and interests). We become obsessed with our existing competencies and become overly focused on maintaining our traditional strategies in favor of new ones.

I am proud to tell you that many of our Jewish agencies and institutions are already ahead of the curve with new strategic plans, partnerships with consultants, and discussions with their constituencies. They are not only focused on today, but more importantly, tomorrow. Every non-profit organization is challenged by current needs, yet our future success relies on reaching new audiences and maintaining even stronger connections to those already involved.

In ancient times, the Jewish people did not despair when the Temples were destroyed. And we must not make ourselves crazy as the stock market jumps up and down. Those are just reactions to “what is.” Instead, just as our people have done for thousands of years, let’s make the most of the opportunity to dream and plan for “what can be.”

Shabbat shalom.



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