The Good News and Bad News about Innovation on Campus

Albert B. Blixt
Founder and Managing Partner

Laurence N. Smith
Founder and Senior Partner

Innovation in higher education is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for innovation and change.  In fact, there is a lot of innovation happening right now on every campus in America.  The bad news is that innovation is being inadvertently stifled in ways that are not readily apparent.  This week we are going to talk about the hidden factors of culture, structure and human nature that prevent innovation and change from happening. And, we are going to talk about what you can do to unleash innovation potential wherever you are and whatever your role in higher education.

The Paradox of Innovation: Good and Bad News
There is certainly a lot of talk about innovation these days.  It shows up in strategic plans and visions statements. Campus leaders say innovation is a priority so their organizations can respond to the disruptive world of higher education.  Yet, while people say they favor innovation and welcome change, the organization’s culture and systems are designed to discourage these things from happening.  The paradox lies in the conflict between operating and innovating.  Operating means reducing risk, cost and uncertainty.  Innovating requires taking risks, investing in failure and being okay with uncertainty. Today’s colleges and universities must hold both of these contradictory ideas at the same time.

The good news about innovation is that, when it works, organizations are better at adapting to changing conditions.  The bad news is that innovation means taking risks that may not work out and that can be scary. It is human nature to want to maximize benefit while minimizing risk. What we see on campuses across the country is people undertaking innovation “under the radar” often without even realizing what is happening. To understand this phenomenon it is important to understand how people talk and think about innovation.

We define innovation as an idea for doing something differently that solves a problem or creates value for someone. We define change as taking action to implement an innovative idea. In our lexicon, innovation can be sustaining or breakthrough.  Sustaining innovation seeks to improve the status quo without needing to dramatically change the organization.  Breakthrough innovation means a dramatic improvement through a disruption of existing processes, structures, policies, roles or procedures.

When we ask senior college leaders what innovation means to them, a common response is that it implies something big and expensive.  Innovation implies initiatives that must be built into the budget and connected to the long-range strategic plan. Leaders tend to think in terms of new programs, new technology, new facilities or other changes that are often associated with breakthrough innovation. Or they think about “silver bullet” special programs that address a particular issue such as increasing student retention. These major innovation initiatives are great, but they require institutional backing, resources and attention. They take time and can be blocked by competing priorities, politics, conventional wisdom, timing, stress on resources, change fatigue, or just a risk-adverse response.

This kind of thinking on the part of leaders is understandable but misses the point. Most of the work and value of innovation should happen at levels below the president’s office. Building innovation capacity into the culture and operation of the institution isn’t the first things leaders think of. They are more likely to undertake a major initiative and then try to get the rest of the organization to “buy in”. The question is how to actively engage the people of the institution. We urge our clients to see innovation as a continuum that spans sustaining and breakthrough types of innovation.  That requires building innovation and change practices into the organizational culture.

The Bad News: “Flying Under the Radar” Limits Innovation and Change
There are plenty of examples of smart, dedicated people implementing ideas to make things better on campuses everywhere.  Oddly, they often do not see what they are doing as part of a broader effort at innovation. They are more likely to see their project as something unique they are doing within the scope of their job. When we point out to them the innovative things they are doing, they respond with comments like, “I don’t see it as innovation. I’m just doing my job, trying to make things work.  I just want what I do to make a difference.” There are reasons why people tend to “fly under the radar”. This kind of grassroots, bottom-up innovation is good, but it comes with significant limitations.

Local spontaneous innovation efforts need to overcome these four negative consequences.

  • The first is that the idea is only as good as the people working on it. They only know what they know. These tend to be carried out by small teams without input from other parts of the organization. These programs are often not institutionalized and therefore are dependent on a single person or small group to keep them going over time. Our colleague and social scientist, the late Ronald Lippitt, keenly observed that many of the greatest innovations went to the grave with their creators who were too modest to “blow their own horns” or felt by doing so they would invite resistance to their efforts.
  • Second, solutions tend to be local because planning and execution do not involve other units. Innovation may feel less risky if it can be carried out without seeking either permission or forgiveness. But, limiting the scope of the innovation will also limit its impact.
  • Third, the informal nature of these efforts means that there is often no written plan or method of evaluating impact. A program that has everyone excited may have been effective but there is no way to tell for sure.  In fact, this lack of measurement actually helps insulate the originators from any kind of scrutiny or accountability.  Again, there is no way to evaluate the value created.
  • And finally, there is no vehicle to capturing lessons learned or coordinating innovation efforts with other things that are going on in other places. The idea of being a learning organization means creating a way to capturing and sharing knowledge.

The Good News: It Is Easier To Promote Innovation And Change Than You Might Think. 
In our campus engagements we are always impressed with the activities that faculty, administrators, staff and even student organizations have launched that qualify as innovations.  In some cases, their efforts can be designated informal “skunk works” and in others they individual efforts to creatively solve problems or improve offerings that optimize effectiveness.

Here are some things you can do to support innovation, improve outcomes, and make it part of the organizational culture.

  • Prepare leadership: Provide training to reorient executives to fully appreciate their importance in supporting a culture of innovation. This requires both training in innovation strategy and a change in roles, responsibilities and how performance in evaluated.
  • Engage microcosms of the system: Create events that bring together cross sections of administrators, faculty, students and staff to experience innovation as a work process.
  • Build infrastructure for innovation and change: Create an Innovation Hub with defined teams to create a space for interaction and ideation.
  • Celebrate successes and learn from failures: Practice being a learning organization that invests in intelligent risk taking tied to creating value for key stakeholders. Look for short-term wins to build momentum. Recognize failures as investments in the future.

(New Campus Dynamics helps colleges and universities prepare for the innovation boom ahead in higher education. Click here to access previous posts. Al Blixt, Larry Smith and the entire NCD team want to hear from you.  Please comment on this blog post or contact us with your questions or comments.)