Establishing and Maintaining an Entrepreneurial, Innovative Spirit in Higher Education
“To play the indispensible function in a new competitive environment, the typical university must change more quickly and more fundamentally than it has been doing.”
Christenson and Eyring, 2011, p. xxiii
Defining the Entrepreneurial, Innovative Institution
The entrepreneurial higher education institution promotes the exploration of issues facing higher education where breakthrough solutions can be explored, tested and launched. Faculty, staff and students should be in the middle of the conversation with clear opportunities to engage and flourish. In a time when the whole higher education landscape is focused on so many issues, it is imperative to look through a new lens and create a culture supporting new ideas and direction to move the academy forward. In addition to the national conversation about value, cost, quality and access there is also a significant discussion around non-academic influences shaping educational opportunities for students like accelerated coding bootcamps, open educational resource repositories and textbook publishers, external online learning providers, competency-based education, and a multitude of providers that are guiding students directly to the workforce in more accelerated models.
The pressures surrounding the academy do impact institutions. The entrepreneurial, innovative institution has the opportunity to put the questions out for key solutions, change and future opportunities. The stakes are high, the resources limited and institutions continue to forge ahead with the best options available. If ever there was a time to consider engendering a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in the academy, it is now. To establish an entrepreneurial spirit across an institution, it is critical to identify people who believe anything is possible and have the drive and determination to do it while entwining this spirit into the core strategic imperatives of the institution.
The Internal Campus Innovation Team
Many institutions have created internal innovation organizations to assist in building the sustained culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. These organizations deal with a limitless number of institutional, community and global issues. Based on a recent study, 60 percent of institutions with innovation-focused centers have modified their missions in the past two years or will change in the upcoming two years (Bishop & Keehn, 2014). With clear vision and direction, the innovation engine can begin to tackle the big problems of academe and the distinct issues in a region or at a single institution.
Many times the innovation unit is designed as a “connected adjacency” so that innovation team members can be connected but not in the mainstream of day-to-day operations. This enables testing new ideas, process and practice to be separate (but connected) from day-to-day operational activities. This model is seen clearly throughout industry with such places as Chick fil-A’s Hatch. The Hatch is an innovation and learning center aimed at strengthening the customer experience, the brand and enriching the company culture. This model also exists in higher education, in places like the Red House at Georgetown University in the Designing the Future(s) of the University Initiative and Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox ColLaborative.
Key Factors to Support the Innovative, Entrepreneurial Spirit
Using lessons learned from design thinking practices as well as change management and overall diffusion of innovations, it is important to provide focus, transparency, communications and opportunities for many people to engage and be part of solution building. Managing the institutional culture is always at the forefront of innovation conversations. Many times, people do not understand the need for change and this disconnect is a primary driver for conflict. The spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation must permeate throughout an organization. To support deep involvement and key focus on major challenges, the following factors support establishing and maintaining the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation:
1.Form a clear, inclusive vision for innovation within the higher education environment. The vision coming from the president or other senior leader of the institution provides a solid connection to mission and institutional purpose. It should engage the entrepreneurship agenda to promote and stimulate innovative solutions and set the direction and pace.
2. Identify a person or team with the “DNA of an innovator” that builds the sense of urgency, provides the spark and serves as a connector and catalyst for engagement and change. This team has responsibility and authority to move the innovation agenda forward as aligned to vision and goals. Having the “DNA” of an innovator according to Christenson means associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting, having an affinity for experimentation (Dyer, Gregersen, & Christenson, 2009).
3. Communicate the vision so that others understand the purpose and pathways to get involved in solving big, challenging problems through innovation practice. Building trust and also synergy is important as well as recognizing success, providing incentives, recognition and rewards for those involved.
4. Create an environment that enables innovation to flourish and thrive for faculty, staff, students and others assisting in solving major issues. The environment itself should be unique, should provide opportunities for people to collaborate and have the freedom to innovate. Environments with white boards, flexible furniture, paper products and a variety of other maker-type products should be available for thought-provoking idea generation, co-creation and prototype development efforts.
5. Engage as many people as possible in learning innovation models, processes and protocols to expand innovation process throughout an organization. This knowledge exchange and conversation is essential to sustaining the entrepreneurial spirit. Also engage teams through off-site events and retreats to build team spirit and better understand how innovation solutions can solve real problems and promote the overall sense of creativity and adventure to solve problems in new ways.
6. Build a sense of urgency around a big problem and engage a variety of people in dialog, information gathering, design thinking practices, co-development processes and prototypes of viable solutions. The innovation process uses backward design, design thinking and other methodologies requiring a range of team members looking at problems from multiple perspectives as well as engaging users of the prospective new tool or process.
7. Design solutions to big problems, test and evaluate with key stakeholders. There are many strategies to support sustaining the entrepreneurial spirit through shared design thinking models, prototyping approaches and tests. At this point in an innovation-decision cycle, people are engaged and excited about the possibility of designing a new process or product to solve major problems and issues.
8. Promote how big problems are being addressed through innovative, new solutions. Promote breakthroughs, prototypes and full solution sets. Discuss the creation of excellence, the connection back to purpose and intended value creation.
Overall, establishing and maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit across an institution can be complex. As always, working within the culture of a campus presents its own set of issues. However, if innovation is woven into the strategic imperatives of the institution—and if faculty, students and staff understand the innovation process and have the opportunity to bring their own issues into the innovation environment and learn new strategies for problem solving—it is more likely to facilitate the entrepreneurial spirit that can change the world.
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Bishop, M.J. and Keehn, A. (2015) Leading Academic Change: An Early Market Scan of Leading-Edge Postsecondary Academic Innovation Centers. William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation, University System of Maryland. Available at:
Christensen, C M. and Eyring, H. J. (2011). The innovative university. Changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
Dyer, J. H., Gregersen, H., and Christensen, C. M. (2009). The innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2009/12/the-innovators-dna
Groves, R. and Bass, R. (2015). The red house at Georgetown: Creating a sustainable future for transformational education, Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education: Vol. 48, Article 14. Available at: http://epublications.marquette.edu/conversations/vol48/iss1/14
Wittenstein, Mike (2014, March 3). Chick-fil-A’s Innovation Center “Hatch”. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140303153610-18997-chick-fil-a-s-innovation-center-hatch
Author Perspective: Administrator