A Message for College and University Presidents:
What Will Your Legacy Be When Disruption is the Name of the Game?

Albert B. Blixt
Coach and Consultant on Innovation and Change

As president, your legacy will depend on how well your organization learns to reinvent itself.  If you don’t talk about the speed of innovation, you’re going to be disrupted. And the brutal fact is that disruption could be a legacy that you don’t want.

Michael Arena, Chief Talent Officer at General Motors might as well have been speaking about higher education in his new book Adaptive Space, when he said, “Organizations are under assault.  If they don’t adapt, they will die. We see this all around us. In this environment, we need to do something that most of us have not been trained to do and our organizations have not been designed for: we must learn to adapt.”

This week we are focusing on the need to train, align and motivate your senior leadership team to become champions of innovation and change. Learn how to inspire this group to get out of its comfort zone and into the work of innovation and change with five rules.

Rule #1: Make Innovation A Stated Strategic Priority
The first step in preparing your leadership team is to make it clear that innovation and change are not optional but need to be infused into everyone’s daily work. While it is true that people are more busy than ever, you must not let what is urgent in the near term crowd out what is important in the long term. You can expect that your team will, with all good intentions, say they are going to embrace your innovation mandate only to report that “very pressing” issues of daily operations forced the delay of this or that meeting or the delivery of this or that outcome will have to wait until next semester.  Or they may delegate such initiatives to trusted lieutenants who will then form special task forces or committees that will fall victim inevitably to countless meetings and political maneuverings.  As the president, you must be forceful in saying “our innovation agenda is essential to our future and will not be compromised!” Then you must be very visible spending time promoting the innovation agenda publicly.  Actions speak louder than words and your actions signal your priorities. If you lose focus, so will others.

Rule #2: Provide Leadership Training In Innovation And Change
Innovation and change are business processes although they often are not recognized as such. Don’t assume that your team understands how to structure those processes or that they are ready to implement them. They will need training in a retreat or other offsite event to ensure your team has a firm grasp of the principles of innovation and change and are able to manage their implementation. Note that this training should include senior executives (president, provost, vice presidents and deans) at a minimum. In addition to knowledge and skills training, policy guidelines need to be on the agenda. There must be honest discussions about how much freedom your reports (and their reports) will have in restructuring the organization, creating new positions, and reallocating resources to empower the people who will be involved. Recognize that much of the work and the best ideas will come from the front line: faculty, staff and students. They have the data to know where the real opportunities are.  In fact, you may want to consider having representation from these groups or even a board member on the leadership team.

Rule #3: Set Clear Expectations For Each Member Of The Leadership Team
This leadership team reports to you as president. Each member of the team needs a clear role definition and a set of personal expectations that will become part of their performance evaluation.  In addition, there should be expectations for what the entire team will be held accountable for collectively. It is a good idea to develop a team charter that outlines the purpose, authority, deliverables, membership, norms and values. Most members of the team will have large parts of the organization reporting to them. Expectations for these individuals must include what is expected from each of their major units.  This may involve other training to build innovation and change capacity.

Rule #4: Establish an Innovation Hub
We call it an Innovation Hub. Michael Arena calls it Adaptive Space.  By whatever name, this is a structure or vehicle that allows ideas to flow into and throughout the organization. An Innovation Hub can be a permanent physical “lab” or a virtual space where teams come together to research, generate ideas, develop pilots or prototypes and then to implement innovative ideas as change initiatives. As Arena says, the Hub is the “relational, emotional, and sometimes physical space necessary for people to freely explore, exchange and debate ideas.  It involves opening up connections for people, ideas, information and resources to come together and interact in ways that enhance organizational agility.” The Hub, or Adaptive Space, enables organizations to be positively disruptive so they can control their own destiny  before someone else does. Different people may be involved in different aspect of the Hub. This facilitates connections necessary to provide a social bridge to uncover and combine ideas that would otherwise not collide.

Rule 5: Communicate And Celebrate Successes And Failures
The very nature of innovation involves risk and that can make people nervous. Embracing ambiguity and risk runs counter to the way most administrators think. By design or default, universities and colleges are institutions that are value-infused and self-perpetuating. They are bound by traditions, legacy policy, process and procedures that are hard to change. Those who try to introduce innovation and change are more often than not put on the defensive and overwhelmed by the reaction of their colleagues, faculty and alumni supporters of the status quo. To succeed innovation and change efforts need to be seen as experiments undertaken with the understanding that they won’t all succeed. It is essential that senior leaders (you) are clear that these risks are part of your investment in the future.  Of course, successes are measured and communicated broadly. But, it is also important to talk about failures, what happened and what was learned. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have failures, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Final Thoughts and a Call to Action
Success for institutions that want to be effective in harnessing disruptive forces requires full commitment of executive leadership: president, provost, vice presidents and deans.  The time for actively planning the future of your institution is NOW.  Incremental fine-tuning of current academic offerings, student-facing operations, enrollment outreach, and financials may be required but they are not a substitute for the innovation and change that will create the agility needed for a viable future institution.  An investment in appropriate consulting, coaching and facilitation can pay big dividends in creating the knowledge, skill and capacity to lead an innovation and change strategy.

Click here to contact us for a free (really), no obligation phone consultation; or call Managing Partner Al Blixt at 734-657-5772.