The Paradox of Innovation Management

By Guest Blogger: Jeremiah Nelson, Ph.D.

Dr. Jeremiah Nelson teaches Entrepreneurial Thinking and Innovative Practice in Higher Education in Bay Path’s Higher Education Leadership and Organizational Studies (HELOS) doctoral program. He serves as Director of MBA Enrollment Management at Wake Forest University School of Business and President of NAGAP, the Association for Graduate Enrollment Management.

A Little History

Modern management evolved in the industrial era to improve operational efficiency to maximize profitability. Frequently this efficiency was achieved through standardization and specialization of work to ensure that each employee fully understood the work they were responsible for and how to perform that work as quickly and safely as possible. Organizations grew larger and more complex. Reward systems were designed to reinforce these ideals, minimize organizational risk, and recognize top performers based on these criteria.

The Paradox

The efficiency and risk management that many managers focus on are at the heart of the innovation paradox. When managers strictly emphasize standardization they are discouraging employees at every level from being creative and identifying ways to improve their work or the customer’s experience. When managers avoid all risk they are communicating to employees that unless they are 100 percent certain of success they shouldn’t bother trying something new. This might make them good managers from profitability and accountability perspectives in the short-term, but it ignores the longer-term opportunities associated with cultivating a culture of innovation.

The Innovation Paradox in Higher Education

We are not immune to the innovation paradox in colleges and universities. The rising cost of higher education has made seeking efficiency a top priority for many higher education leaders. Hundreds of years of traditions on our campuses have made some changes more difficult and others almost blasphemous. Many leaders remain risk averse, even as the risks of not evolving are increasingly unavoidable. Fears of failure and the potential for negative impacts on brand and reputation often paralyze innovation.

So what do we do as leaders to address the paradox? Here are some suggestions for ways to start moving the culture of your institution, department, or program (gently) in the direction of creativity and innovation:

  • The Power of the Pilot

There is something about a pilot program that is more palatable to those resistant to change. A pilot program by definition is temporary, so it requires less commitment (and often less approval) by decision-makers. For those that are more risk averse, a pilot program starts small and typically requires limited resources. It will not disrupt the status quo in a meaningful way and can be executed by a few committed individuals. If it fails, it can quietly go away with little notice or be reinvented into pilot version 2.0. If a pilot program is successful, however, it provides proof of concept to support expansion or full-scale implementation.

  • Examine Reward Systems

Rewards signal priorities to employees. Even if the performance management process is highly standardized and raises aren’t within your purview, you can still exercise less formal rewards that message the encouragement of creativity and innovation among your teams. Consider creating an award that recognizes creativity on a regular basis. Gift cards, professional development funding, and extra time off are three fairly inexpensive ways I’ve used successfully to reward employees in a tangible way. I wouldn’t underestimate the impact intangible rewards like hand-written notes and public praise. Here are some other ideas you might consider to reward innovative behavior.

  • Reframe Mistakes as Learning Experiences

Equally important to rewarding positive behavior is acknowledging the impact of how mistakes are treated. By definition, innovation is likely going to involve some failure before success is achieved. If your goal is to create a culture that embraces innovation, employees cannot be afraid of punishment if their ideas don’t pan out on the first attempt. Embracing and even celebrating the lessons and experience that come from failing small. Not only does this give individual employees the confidence to be innovative, by publically sharing what was learned provides a way for the group to incorporate those lessons into their own practice and an outlet to collectively refine the idea. An additional benefit is that a public discussion normalizes sharing mistakes to glean lessons and minimizes the temptation to brush them under the rug.

  • Stretching Your Tolerance for Risk

As a manager, you have likely been conditioned to minimize risk. Inherent in most systems is the responsibility of managers for the mistakes of their direct reports. Therefore you are managing both personal risks internally and organizational risk externally. If you are committed to cultivating a culture of innovation, it will be incumbent upon you to stretch your tolerance for risk. In time you will recognize more quickly what is actual risk and what is just perceived risk, but in the interim there is a certain amount of personal fortitude required to lead. Getting buy-in from your own leadership is often a good strategy to minimize the personal risk. Establishing an approval process prior to rollout can offer you a checkpoint for public-facing risks. Start small if you are naturally more risk averse to build up your tolerance and challenge yourself to push beyond your comfort zone.

  • Build in the Capacity (and Expectation) of Creativity

Giving employees the time and space to be creative can be a challenge, particularly on teams where everyone is operating at maximum capacity and is stretched to their limits. Using your prerogative as manager to carve out and prioritize this time can help employees not to think of creative endeavors as more work on top of their already full plates. This can be achieved collectively in weekly team meetings or offsite days dedicated to ideation and innovation. This could also be treated as part of an employee’s regular work by allocating some portion of their time for side projects like Google famously does.

In the end, you can address the innovation paradox by recognizing the inherent tension between traditional management approaches and those required to encourage innovation.  As a leader, it is up to you to proactively work toward creating a culture that embraces the potential of every member of your organization, department, or team to be creative.

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