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What Happens to Innovation When an Industry is in Survival Mode

When an industry enters survival mode, such as higher education did amidst the 2020 pandemic, institutions must lean into innovation while relying on their values, mission and past experiences to drive change.

Several years ago, I stumbled across the McKinsey 3 Horizons Model, which describes a framework for thinking through growth strategy within an organization or industry. In the introduction to the edited collection The Business of Innovating Online, I applied this model to online learning organizations to show how they shift through its three phases of (1) focusing on core business elements, toward (2) exploring new expansions, and then (3) creating new opportunities. 

The fascinating part of this model is that it demonstrates a process through which what was once considered a new and unique opportunity ultimately, over time, becomes a core business element. This causes the cycle to begin again as innovative and risky ideas and strategies become more solid and familiar. As concepts and implementations age, we accept them as a new normal and keep looking to the future for new opportunities to grow and evolve.

2020 offered us a case study for how this kind of transition can occur at scale for both higher education professionals and the higher education industry as a whole. If educational technology and online learning used to contain unfamiliar elements that seemed too risky for individuals to pursue, that is no longer the case after many institutions transitioned to remote learning operations. 

Indeed, the use of video conferencing alone demonstrates how our increased technology use has the capacity to create a new normal. Tools such as Zoom have, over the past several months, impacted our time management since we have less need to travel in between meetings. They have changed the way that we communicate with colleagues and students since we now have the options, for example, to have cameras off, change backgrounds and, more recently, add filters such as sunglasses or party hats. Video conferencing has also influenced the psychology of connection since we are realizing the impossibility of looking someone in the eye on Zoom.

Because of these required adjustments, higher education has been thrust from one stage of the horizon model to another in a very short period of time. What used to be technology that, at least for some, was used rarely is now more familiar. However, this does not mean that we are not all experiencing a bit of whiplash from the quick, compulsory transition.

I have heard colleagues describe the concept of time over the past year as a vortex, a black hole, as fluid, and as wasted. Our planning has shifted from a five- to ten-year window to weeks or months at the longest. Colleagues across the industry have shared with me how projects that were once priority have been completely abandoned. The abundant set of unknowns that we are currently working with have created challenges for strategic planning, budget management, and human resource development, among many other areas.

Our industry has necessarily had to become more focused on the now. 

This has raised a question of what happens to the Three Horizons Model framework when an organization or industry shifts into survival mode?

From what I have seen, at least in higher education, we do the following:

Define our values

Go back to the basics. Why are we doing what we do? Who do we support? What do we do best? What do we care the most about in supporting our communities? What does this mean for how we spend our time, resources, and energy?

Look at our current practices in new ways

In the past year, higher education institutions have revisited fee structures and tuition models, hiring policies, remote work policies, student support infrastructure, and a range of other processes. In some cases, these changes have created long-term improvements to our systems and policies.

Make innovation the norm

Whereas once innovation was considered an initiative that needed its own office, staff, funding, and leadership support, it is now becoming acculturated into some of the most basic elements of higher education as troubleshooting and problem solving become everyday activities.

Expand our resilience to change

With new announcements about institutional changes–and reactions to them–coming out daily (see industry publications for just some examples), we need to accept change and bounce back a lot more quickly than was previously required.

Grow our skills

At an individual level, we must learn. And learn. And learn some more. In times of extreme reactivity, learning and evolution becomes a core element of our professional identities. Importantly, this is a skill that we can also be teaching our learners during this period.

Support one another

Just because change is becoming the norm does not mean that it is any less challenging. The transitions described by the Three Horizons Model are often organization-wide and require stakeholder engagement from a range of areas to be successful. Change is a collective effort that we must engage in together if that change is meant to impact culture and future decision-making.

As we make the unfamiliar more familiar, leaning into strong foundations and values, relationships, and history help us to stay grounded as we engage in this unprecedented evolution. A continued focus on the shifting role of innovation during this period will also help us identify the tools we need to stay focused on our institutional missions, purpose, and priorities.

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