Is It Time to Redefine Innovation?

In this era of heightened disruption and challenge facing nearly all of higher education, we hear—increasingly—the call for innovation. Innovation is viewed as the golden ring that, once caught, will carry institutions through to a brighter future.  And yet, many of these calls view innovation narrowly, often through the lens of technological tools and approaches. Most troubling is the lack of attention given to the role of the leader in facilitating innovation.  Leaders who know how to inspire and drive lasting change while creating new opportunities for our institutions and improved success for our students are essential for the future of our colleges and universities, now more than ever.  I would suggest that a definition of innovation without leadership at the center is incomplete and misguided.

What does effective innovative leadership look like? What does an innovative leader actually do?  Let me suggest three things that, according to my research, make the difference between failure and resilience, particularly in this current context:

1. Connect Vision to Unseen Aspirations and Opportunities:

The Irish author and satirist, Jonathan Swift wrote: “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible. Foresight is all about looking forward and anticipating things that others cannot yet see.”  Indeed, a common thread that we see in the most effective innovative higher ed leaders is this:  Each one has a clear and compelling vision for their institution. Each one is able to imagine a future that looks different from the present. And all of these leaders are dissatisfied to some extent with the present status of their institutions.  Maria Clawe–president of Harvey Mudd College since 2006–envisioned a world where young women are actively engaged in STEM field pursuits, something that mattered deeply to her.  Clawe has spent her entire tenure driving this vision deep within her institution while also keeping one eye to the future for emerging opportunities. Accordingly, Harvey Mudd’s new strategic vision revolves around six themes, the first of which is ‘Innovation, Leadership, and Impact, Especially in Engineering, Science and Mathematics.’  And Klawe has been lauded for her recent work in promoting increased diversity in computer science. In the college or university context, innovation is never an end onto itself. Through vision and foresight, leaders help their campuses foresee the future, identify opportunities that will transform their fate, and foster positive change to more effectively and most fully leverage their mission. Innovative leaders connect vision and foresight to community aspirations and opportunities, many of which are unspoken or overlooked. 

2. Practice Effectuation:

University of Virginia Darden Professor Saras Sarasvathy has been studying entrepreneurial leaders for a very long time. Her theory of effectuation emerged from in-depth interviews with 27 serial entrepreneurs, designed to answer the question “what do entrepreneurs and innovators actually do?”  In contrast to managers, Sarasvathy found that entrepreneurs tend to make it up as they go along, starting with whatever they have in hand including who they are, what they know, and who they know.  She learned that entrepreneurs are really good at making lemons out of lemonade; they are flexible and open to change, and they are networking machines. Most importantly, Sarasvathy concluded that leaders can easily learn this skill. A recent IngenioUs interview with Paul Quinn College’s president, Michael Sorrell provides a great example of this principle in practice.  When Paul Quinn College decided to convert its football field into an organic farm following Sorrell’s initial discussion with a potentially significant donor with an interest in sustainability, many eyebrows were raised. While born out of a sense of desperation, the termination of the football program and eventual conversion of the field into the state-of-the-art WE Over Me Farm where students can work, and from which food is donated to the surrounding community and sold to area businesses for profit, is a great example of Saravathy’s ‘bird in hand’ principle: Sorrell saw new opportunities in a football field that was costing the institution undue financial strain. The point here is this: every institution has untapped resources at hand that can be re-purposed in new and innovative ways.  Innovative leaders nurture cognitive flexibility, they remain open to wide ranging perspectives, they gather ideas from even the most random conversations and everyday experiences, they are willing to consider just about anything with the resource at hand and they act quickly.

3. Claim your Inner ‘Chaos Pilot’:

Danish politician, Uffe Elback, first coined the term ‘chaos pilot’ when he created his unique business school, named Kaospilot, to teach business students how to lead through uncertainty. According to Elback, a chaos pilot is someone who creates transformation, and is a changemaker, entrepreneur, and leader. Consider real life chaos pilot and longtime Southern New Hampshire University president Paul Leblanc who relishes leading through chaos and uncertainty. In a profile by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Leblanc describes the various changes his institution was in the midst of as ‘akin to breaking out of the higher ed echo chamber.’ Hiring key staff from outside of higher education, using business lingo to build SHNU’s culture, and instituting a highly flexible, non-siloed and fluid organizational structure were just a few of the many innovations he has led during his tenure. Innovative leaders like Leblanc possess an unusual capacity to thrive in uncertainty, to be comfortable with ambiguity and able to remain open to many possible outcomes, resisting the urge to rush to a premature conclusion just to ease organizational angst. They also are skilled in creating the necessary structure to enable their institutions to keep moving forward even in the midst of great uncertainty. While chaos pilots often make others uncomfortable with their incessant challenging of the status quo, they are the ones who can see their way through complex organizational problems and uncertainty to create a lasting and positive impact.

Stay tuned for more of my thoughts about how we need to rethink innovation in higher education.  In part two of this series, I will discuss more innovative leadership practices and share ideas for how we can identify and develop such leaders within our campus communities.

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