Overcoming Obstacles to Innovation and Change and How to Respond

According to recent studies, there is a shortage of qualified academic leaders willing to step up into senior leadership roles on college campuses these days. Even more alarming are the reports about the uptick in ever more short-lived senior leader stints.  

For many top leaders, a desire to exercise one’s creative juices–to have an impact–is what pulled them into their jobs in the first place. Yet, the opportunity for creative thinking and innovative pursuits–something that institutions desperately need—is increasingly limited.  When asked about their hesitation to pursue the presidency, academic leaders often cite such factors as excessive workloads, curmudgeonly faculty, campus infighting, and unresponsive campus governance structures, all things that drain one’s creative energies and get in the way of meaningful change.   

So, what to do?  Why is it so difficult to create and maintain a spirit of innovation and creativity within an academic organization? Is there anything that leaders can do to rebalance the dynamics of their work and role?  In my experience, significant change will never occur until the forces for change are greater in combination than the forces preserving the status quo. Especially in academic institutions, the forces for resisting change are often institutionalized in complex and powerful ways resulting in obstacles that can be difficult to overcome.

While some of these obstacles are at work in all organizational settings, they play out uniquely according to a college’s culture, mission, resource constraints, and political dynamics.  Here are five common obstacles that I have seen get in the way of even the most effective leaders along with suggestions for mitigating their impact.

1. Fear of Change

Faculty, staff, and administrators are no different from anyone else in being slow to exchange what they know and do, even if they are not happy with it, for the unknown, which has the potential of being far worse. The risk of being deskilled and rendered irrelevant is a powerful fear, especially for faculty, and is often the reason for resistance to new program ideas or delivery models. Ask any provost who has tried to implement a new delivery model, and you will typically hear a litany of frustrations due to the skeptical and (unacknowledged) fearful responses from faculty. Especially for those who have made their living teaching in a traditional classroom setting, new pedagogical modes and delivery models can cause real anxiety and concern about long-term job security. 

Leadership Response:  When starting new initiatives, try mini launches to start.  Keep the stakes low and allow individuals to experiment and to fail.  Provide incentives (such as a course release) to experiment with new ideas or try on new ways of doing things and recognize and reward those efforts.  The Guided Pathways reform work at San Jacinto Community College provides a wonderful example of one institution’s commitment to creating space for creativity and failure.  As leaders, it is important to recognize, validate and normalize the fear that always accompanies any kind of change.  And then make people part of the change—from the very beginning.  Especially with faculty, if they don’t create it, they’ll feel threatened by it.  And, if they feel threatened, they’ll resist.  

2. Zero-Sum Thinking

Most colleges and universities exist in a culture of competition among institutions, among programs, and even among faculty. The pull towards self-protection can be intense, resulting in a fear that if another department or faculty gets new resources, “there will be less for me and my department.”  The widely reported collapse of the Duke University undergraduate curricular reform initiative is a good example of this dynamic at work. After five years of hard work culminating in the development of an innovative new curriculum called Blueprint, the effort fell apart over faculty quibbling. New ideas—regardless of how well-founded—can be viewed as something that will take away the resources that faculty and staff believe they need to do their jobs. During difficult financial times, such as the present, the often unconscious urge to protect one’s turf and resources deepens, making change all that more challenging.

Leadership Response:  Be intentional in communicating the purpose of whatever change you are trying to bring about.  Make sure people understand the bigger context and how their individual piece contributes to the greater effort. And don’t forget to spell out the ‘why’—how will this change make things better for your campus community, your faculty, staff and students?  If you find that you cannot come up with a legitimate or compelling answer to the ‘why’ question, it should give you pause on moving forward.  For those who worry that your new effort will take resources away from existing needs, consider starting a new ventures fund that is separate from the operating budget and funded through external sources to support new initiatives.  Westminster College (UT) has done a great job with this through their President’s Innovation Network.

3. Tradition and Culture

Tradition is an extremely powerful force—from within and outside the academy—and can never be underestimated when planning change of any kind. In a 2012 piece entitled “The University Culture,” Joseph Simplico suggests that each university has a unique culture “born from the institution’s history and … steeped in tradition,” which “provides stability and continuity.”  According to Simplico, universities have guardians of this culture who are “veteran faculty members, entrenched staff members, and others with longevity and seniority” who “stand watch over the status quo,…begrudgingly allow only the most necessary of changes, and … usher in newcomers and indoctrinate them into the fold.”

Leadership Response:  Especially for new leaders, it is important to know who the ‘guardians of the culture’ are on your campus.  Be aware that the role of ‘guardian’ can change depending upon the issue at hand.  For example, changes in your athletic programs are likely to surface different ‘guardians’ than changes in your performance arts endeavors.  The important point here is to do your homework before going too far with any change. Make sure you understand who has reason to care about and possibly resist your efforts to make changes.  When Christina Paxson became Brown University’s President, she reached out to students, faculty, staff, alumni and others to get their input about Brown’s future.  She wisely held off on making any big changes until she understood—firsthand—all of the perspectives of the various campus constituencies. The bold plan that emerged from her wide-ranging, inclusive listening tour was enthusiastically and widely embraced, leading to unprecedented collaboration between faculty and students and enduring change.  

4. Leadership

Yes, leaders can sometimes get in their own way especially during any kind of sustained crisis.  In this present-day environment, leaders face two competing demands. They must execute in order to meet today’s challenges.  And they must adapt to be ready for the future.  They must develop “next practices” while not losing sight of current challenges.  During uncertain times, people are anxious, and they want their leaders to provide firm and clear direction; to respond authoritatively.  The risk here is to oversell what you know and discount what you don’t know; and act as if you and your executive team are singularly responsible for finding the best way into the future.

Leadership Response:  Successful innovation and change rarely stick when pushed unilaterally or clothed in some sweeping new initiative dreamed up at the top of the institution. Research shows that the most enduring change comes from the accrual of lots of smaller changes that happen over time and across the institution.  Effective leaders need to be humble and acknowledge they don’t have all of the answers.  They need to use their leadership position to generate more leadership at all levels of the institution. This is a hard thing for many leaders to do. In a recent IngenioUs podcast episode, intercultural communications expert, Dr. Amer Ahmed, suggests that the most effective campus leaders right now are empathetic, adaptive, inclusive and skilled at valuing the contributions and perspectives of all individuals in the organization.  Why? Because no one single leader has the personal bandwidth to make sense of all of the change swirling around them.  Now more than ever, leaders need to increase the information flow up, down and across the institution; to mobilize everyone—including the most diverse range of life experiences and viewpoints possible–to generate solutions based on what others know and can see from wherever they sit.  At the end of the day, you want to create a culture where ‘everyone feels like they own the institution and are responsible for its success.’  

5. Internal Systems, Processes and Perceived Constraints

The systems and processes on most campuses tend to reinforce the status quo with few rewards for taking risks. And top-down, control-based hierarchical structures discourage individual initiative and reduce autonomy. In other words, the tendency to mindlessly conform to commonly accepted beliefs and rules that govern the way things are supposed to work—hamper innovation and breakthroughs.  As anyone who has spent time and energy trying to surface ideas on a college campus can attest, the level and source of resistance can be surprising and can wear down even the most tenacious leader.  I once worked with a colleague who simply ignored any idea or suggestion that might mean change or increased complexity for his area.  After a time, people would give up, leaving his area to function in a siloed way; rarely for the benefit of others including students.

Leadership Response:  Leaders should keep in mind the old adage that ‘while some rules may be necessary, others may encourage mental laziness.’  How might you support the rule breakers on your campus and give voice to those who can see the benefit of rethinking the way things have always been done?  And what about those constraints that are commonly raised as a reason to keep change at bay?  According to the research, constraints serve to fuel innovation, not the other way around. Next time someone suggests that something cannot be done because of budget constraints, use the constraint to send folks back to the drawing table.  Reframe the constraint as a creative challenge by asking ‘what if? or ‘why not?’ questions.   When used to focus attention and energy on the problem at hand, constraints can lead to creative breakthroughs.  Consider the story behind the cult classic The Terminator. With no funding to create special effects of the future, producers came up with the low budget idea of bringing an ‘android from the future back to the ‘present’; an effect that transformed the film industry. The rest, as they say, is history.

Despite the barriers, many colleges and universities are finding the courage and creativity to experiment with new ways of doing things.  I will be sharing more insights about what these institutions are doing to nurture an innovative mindset on their campuses in future blog posts.  Stay tuned!

This article is excerpted with permission from Dr. Morriss-Olson’s recently released book, Academic Entrepreneurship: The Art and Science of Creating the Right Academic Programs (2020), available here

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