Leading Through Fragmentation: Kaleidoscope Thinking and Shaking Up Patterns to Innovate

In order to make your institution viable in the post-COVID-19 marketplace, your offerings must embrace flexibility, combine multiple disciplines, and mix approaches to offer a more complete education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education report, “Financial Strategies for a Crisis and Beyond,” offers three strategic lines of thinking and decision-making that are germane during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. First, institutional leaders must necessarily enact dual strategies of divesting in less essential and low-return spending while also (re)investing in mission-critical and high-impact budgeting. Second, institutional viability will more heavily rely on colleges and universities forging mission-aligned partnerships and collaborations that offer greater opportunity for their constituents to develop, expand, and leverage institutional affiliations. Last, the cost of doing business for some colleges and universities may be too high to absorb now and in the near future, thereby resulting in merger, acquisition, and closure considerations. 

Perhaps more than ever it is evident that colleges and universities must sustain sufficient financial strength to balance mission with market—particularly in terms of discharging their value entrustments. Clark Kerr, renowned economist and academic administrator, reminds us of the historical and endemic dialectic:

Higher education started in the Agora, the market place, at the bottom of the hill and ascended to the Acropolis on top of the hill….Mostly it has lived in tension, at one and the same time at the bottom of the hill, at the top of the hill, and on many paths in between.

At liminal crossways, student choice and success traverse institutional promotion and assurance. The pathways up and down the hill are part of educational phenomena that analogous to modern Athens rests upon the remnants of individual and collective actions in the higher education marketplace. To be clear, it is neither necessary nor obligatory for higher education leaders to subjugate their institutional missions to the market. However, are and should those missions be immutable? Furthermore, how can institutions most effectively be mission-centered and market-smart amidst a universal crisis and mass disruption? Questions aside, one thing is certain: change is inevitable and far-reaching!

Changing and reimagining what colleges and universities do, and how they go about doing it, is an extensive and complex matter. An endeavor of such magnitude will likely involve cultural, structural, and functional fissions that altogether may constitute the remaking of institutions—particularly in cases where financial solvency and institutional stability are at risk. Furthermore, transcending a precarious present and realizing a more prosperous future may necessitate wholesale changes beyond characteristically mimetic follow-the-leader adoptions and adaptations. What may have been sufficient or ideal in the recent past may not be the case now.

Kaleidoscope thinking

Conventional leaders typically view integration as a desired state, valuing differentiation and problematizing fragmentation. Conversely, progressive leaders look for patterns everywhere, often seeing utility in what they perceive as fragmented. These enlightened leaders see possibilities by way of kaleidoscope thinking, in terms of breaking free from orthodox standpoints and alternatively constructing new ideas and arrangements across markets, industries, organizations, and communities. Moreover, radical latticework can reveal and generate institutional opportunities by way of fusing disparate and far-flung facts, concepts, artifacts, methods, and actions. 

Engaging kaleidoscope thinking can foster inspiration, stimulate ideation, and facilitate innovation. Moreover, when viewed as constructive provocations, fragmented patterns can inform strategy, shape tactics, and incite actions that yield efficacious outcomes. However, organizational factors can obfuscate the kaleidoscopic lens. That is, sundry institutional reserves, missions, student bodies, and operational factors may render the visual trajectory toward ensuring sustainability clearer for some institutions and less so for others. There are, however, common actions higher education leaders can enact to engage kaleidoscope thinking in financially tumultuous and settled times:

  1. Examine enduring assumptions that fortify outmoded ways and means of achieving goals. 
  2. Embolden creative improvisations that challenge the status quo. 
  3. Explore far-afield phenomena that stimulate and inform innovative use cases.

Enduring assumptions

Time-honored beliefs about what makes an institution distinct—but not necessarily unique—can become durable grand narratives that stifle essential change. Underlying these beliefs are deeply ingrained assumptions that operate at micro, meso, and macro levels. At the micro-level, assumptions influence what individuals (e.g., presidents and provosts) may perceive as relevant, possible, and sustainable. At the meso-level, groups (e.g., faculty, alumni, and boards) can hold certain assumptions as rational and incontestable, even in the face of existential challenges. At the macro-level, industry entities (e.g., colleges and universities) legitimate and reify institutionalized norms and practices based on tightly held conventions of what is appropriate and therefore acceptable. Higher education leaders must examine assumptions at each level, and actively work toward dismantling discursive barriers to institutional and student success. 

Creative improvisations

Organizations rely on, for their mere existence, the unarticulated tacit knowledge and routinized actions of its constituents. In this regard, imbued habits and rote behaviors evince a trained capacity to cling to the familiar and proven, as opposed to reaching for the uncommon and creative. In Frank Barrett’s seminal article, “Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations,” he discerns that leaders develop habitual patterns of responses and consequently rest in the comfort of epistemic “competency traps.” Barrett points out that “too much reliance on learned patterns (habitual or automatic thinking) tends to limit the risk-taking necessary for creative improvisation.” Alternatively, he promotes enacting “provocative competence” as a deliberate effort to interrupt routinized patterns that constrain organizational creativity. Higher education leaders must embolden their key constituents’ creativity, enabling improvised actions in contexts that are organically disposed to new ways of organizing, delivering, and responding. 

Far-afield phenomena 

Colleges and universities are key entities in an organizational field (i.e., higher education industry) comprised of consumers, suppliers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar services or products. Over the past two decades, education entrepreneurs have immigrated to the higher education industry, injecting new business models and driving innovation in educational organizations and corporations. Less evident, and much more needed, are cases in which progressive higher education leaders have evolved into far-afield sojourners and scouts, collecting information, extrapolating solutions, and procuring resources from far-fetched contexts. This is a particularly sanguine undertaking for institutions facing merger, acquisition, or closure. Higher education leaders must explore industries that are markedly different, gathering fragments that can be pieced together to reveal applicability via kaleidoscope thinking.

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