Guest Blog

Responsive Innovation: Growing and Evolving Through Dialogue

– by Annie Lumerman

March 4th, 2019

It starts simple. One problem. One need. One idea.

At Sefaria, we take that simple start and grow it collaboratively into robust and sometimes game-changing solutions. This is the heart of our approach to research and development: we listen to our users, we study the potential impact of implementing new tools and features, and then we innovate. We have an ambitious vision to make Torah more accessible and we balance a long list of new product ideas and everyday maintenance needs along with a constant stream of user feedback. This vision is best pursued when our funders view themselves as partners in this journey—ready to celebrate successes and to learn from failures with us—and when they understand why and how this approach yields the innovations that the field embraces.

The Winding Journey to Innovation
As a fast-moving organization, one that is committed to launching early and often, and pivoting when necessary, long-term plans can be tricky. We release a new feature about every three weeks. Some of them you’ve seen, because they’ve gained traction, while others quietly morph into other features, getting redesigned and redeployed later on. Like most tech companies, our product roadmaps primarily exist to help us prioritize the most important work at that moment, and plan the sequence in which we’ll release features as they relate to our strategic goals.

Estimating how long it will take to create an entirely new tool or feature is always a challenge. We do, however, use a quarterly planning process adopted from a technique made famous by Intel and Google measuring objectives and key results–or OKRs. This approach allows us to remain flexible and open to new opportunities while also holding ourselves accountable to internal deadlines and benchmarks. As we grade the previous quarter and plan for the next one, we can adjust to new circumstances, adapt to changes in the broader world of technology, and allow our small but mighty engineering team the opportunity to support the needs of our audience. Furthermore, some of the most successful tools, products and interfaces pioneered by Sefaria – including our Source Sheet Builder – were not initially on any product roadmap.

Source Sheets have long been a fixture in Jewish education. For decades, rabbis, teachers and professors would physically cut and paste these sheets together so that students could learn together in a classroom setting. For a long time, this tool served its purpose.

When Sefaria was first building its library, our team repeatedly heard requests from users: Can I build a source sheet on your site? Given the importance of this pedagogical tool and how inextricably linked it is to the way we study Jewish texts, we knew that our users were onto something. So we listened and responded, building a product that digitized the source sheet.

At first, that’s all it was: just a direct digitization of a once-analog product. Of course even that was a giant leap forward, allowing users to pull from texts without scissors, a glue stick and a copy machine. This new life for the traditional source sheet quickly evolved as we learned from our users.

Soon, we upgraded the ability to add multimedia. A community educator could add video classes to a sheet. Or a teacher could add an image of a Marc Chagall painting to illustrate how a text inspired a piece of art. Or perhaps a singer-songwriter would write music based on female characters in the Bible and upload the recordings with links to the texts that inspired her.

But because Sefaria is an ever-evolving platform, we kept reaching. Again, we turned to our users to listen, learn and grow. We soon realized that we needed a way for educators to reach an eager audience. It wasn’t enough just to host their source sheets–even in their new upgraded form. Now, we needed a method to connect users to the type of content they were seeking.

To this challenge, we responded by developing our Groups feature. Now, organizations and schools, as well as individual artists and thinkers, could launch their curriculum, classes, resources and ideas in a low-risk, high-reward environment. This evolving feature already hosts more than 45 groups including Moishe House, One Table, ELI Talks, various synagogues, schools, Hillels and more.

And it doesn’t end here. As you read this, our team is working around the clock on enhancements for the Groups feature, for the Source Sheet Builder and new tools we have yet to even announce.

Funding the Unknown and Embracing Change Together
For some funders, our approach is unconventional, and the nature of the work can be unsettling. One problem begets one solution—and the work takes off from there. Truly innovating often means embarking on the unknown, including not knowing when—or if—a new project will be completed.

As a software platform that will succeed or fail based on its utility, we are wary of making promises—whether it’s a new feature or an engagement tactic—before anything has been tested by users. If we were to make specific commitments simply to satisfy a funder looking for a detailed project plan and timeline, we could end up building products that are not adaptive and don’t work for the majority of Sefaria’s users.

That’s why we particularly value our relationship with funding partners who learn with us and remain open to flexibility and change throughout the grant period. These partners also understand that risk-taking is a critical part of innovation. And because traditional, “transactional” grant reports sometimes fail to capture progress made and valuable information learned in any period, we appreciate the opportunity for regular check-ins. Our ongoing conversations give us the opportunity to build trust, share honest feedback, learn from each other and, ultimately, better support the Jewish community together.

We’ve been very lucky to work with several major foundations and individual investors who have been willing to take this journey with us. And while we have made a lot of progress making the Jewish library more accessible, we still have a lot of work to do!

Annie Lumerman is Chief Operating Officer of Sefaria.

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