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How to Avoid the Blockbuster Trap: Stoking Innovation in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | How to Avoid the Blockbuster Trap: Stoking Innovation in Higher Education
Consciously supporting innovation at every level of an organization can help colleges and universities keep pace with the demands of a rapidly changing industry.

Greek philosopher Heraclitus advised that “the only thing that is constant is change.” This bit of wisdom especially rings true when it comes to higher education. While many think of higher education as an industry that has remained unchanged over the years, several universities are, in fact, reinventing themselves and working to find ways to better serve their students.

 Institutions known for innovation in higher education have found success by removing the obstacles many students face in the traditional system. By doing so, these universities are experiencing a new-found niche that has resulted in growth that contradicts current trends. Many eyes are focused on their successes, especially when it comes to the market leaders like Western Governors University, which today serves 117,000 students nationwide. The university pioneered the use of the competency-based education model in an online environment, which allowed students to leverage previous education, training and work experience to earn their degrees faster at a time when the internet was an emerging innovation itself. To ensure continued success of innovative universities, an emphasis on innovation must continue to be a focus.

Leaders of innovative institutions are in situations similar to many businesses. Think of Blockbuster, who gave us the ability to watch movies right in the comfort of our own homes. The company leaders developed a booming business, but when given the chance to change the business model to keep pace with changing technology (including an opportunity to own Netflix!), they turned it down, assuming they had a good thing that would last. We know the rest of the story—success blinded company leaders, resulting in the demise of the company. Innovative organizations are at risk of another innovation making their product obsolete. These innovations can come from inside or outside their organization. Leaders must focus on what’s next to remain relevant. This is no different in higher education.

As the needs of the population continue to change over the years, innovation must be embraced by all university staff members if they are going to be successful in educating future generations.

In order to effectively accomplish this, leaders hoping to remain relevant in the future must follow a few key principles: Create a culture of innovation; value employees who challenge status quo and dream of an improved future state; encourage the use of pilots to stretch the current structure; and recognize and reward innovative thinking.

These principles must become an integral part of the organizational culture to stimulate innovation.

Innovation as a Leadership Principle

Creating a culture of innovation is vital in keeping team members motivated, as well as for continuing success, but university leaders need to place value on innovation in a way that matters. Innovation can’t be the great win that just happens sometimes; it must become part of the daily fabric. At Western Governors University, for example, innovation is a core leadership principle. This principle belongs to a set of principles that apply to all employees including focuses on student obsession, learning and courage. The leadership principles are more than just a list of words, they live in the daily actions of employees. For instance, all 10 leadership principles are part of every employee evaluation. Each employee has peer reviews on their performance relative to the leadership principles, and these are also considered for all promotions. Including innovation as an expected leadership principle for all employee evaluations is a reminder that everyone in the university is expected to innovate. At monthly all-staff meetings, we highlight stories about real employee stories who exemplified the principles in their work.

Value Innovations Big and Small

Leaders who strive for innovation within higher education must really value it so that time is dedicated to consistently thinking about innovation. This means that leaders who want innovation also need to have a high tolerance for failure. Understanding how innovation and failure go hand in hand helps encourage employees to try new things.

Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, challenges employees to innovate and be the ones who create the next big idea in higher education. He maintains that innovators must be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time. He stands at the top with the expectation for innovation and provides support when it doesn’t work out as expected. As a former leader of startup tech companies, as well as within Amazon, he leads by questioning status quo and using data to ensure decisions are made in the best interest of students.

Small innovations are important as well. Big changes are what get the attention, yet more often it is small, subtle innovations that result in step function changes that can produce significantly better results. When everyone is challenged to innovate, small changes that start with one person can be rolled out to many, dramatically changing the impact. For example, faculty members on the front line have important ideas which improve student performance that can be implemented university wide.

Establish Goals Around Innovation

Setting goals for innovation is another way to ensure that employees are on board with trying new things. Doing this frequently—not once a year—can really motivate them and drive action as employees recognize the value that is placed on being innovative and respond accordingly.

Innovation for the sake of driving change is not what this is about. Innovation goals need to be focused on improving things that matter, including those that impact the main thing: students or graduates. Another important category could be innovations that improve quality or relevancy of programs. Fiscal responsibility and efficiencies can be another focus area. When leaders define the goals and focus for innovation, they can establish a future path for the university.

Gary Hamel is credited with stating, “Success breeds stewards, not entrepreneurs.” Being labeled as innovative will only be short-lived, unless leaders in higher education can push for the next best practices for their universities. Often when a university sees great success, leaders simply work to protect that achievement instead of focusing their efforts on finding the next great innovation. To help stay on top, leaders must encourage their staff to embrace innovation at all levels. Doing so will set them apart in the higher education space in the years to come.

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