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Are We Cultivating Innovation?
May 8, 2012 - 4:15pm

My own answer to the question posed in this post's title varies. As with anything related to the overall picture of Student Affairs, nuance abounds. Initially, I would say that if I were to generalize, I would vehemently say that we actively discourage large scale innovation in Student Affairs. However, because we exist in "the gray," I feel compelled to mention that there are pockets of innovation … although, finding them isn't easy. You know who you are.

Last week, I read an article in Fast Company's Co.Design blog on creating a culture of innovation. When I come across a business-themed article, I usually view it through my student affairs professional lens. Most of the time, business pieces translate rather easily to the work, concepts, and ideas that are present in the field of Student Affairs. When I got to the section in the Co.Design article on the "innovator's DNA" I was struck by how applicable it was to Student Affairs.

According to the Co.Design article, the Innovator's DNA consists of the following four components: Questioning, Networking, Observing, and Experimenting.

Questioning was framed as "asking probing questions that impose or remove constraints." I don't think that we do a good enough job of letting people ask questions. The cultivation of the "why this or that" question seems to thrive in our graduate programs. But, I am concerned that we tend to weed out questioning discourse in favor of faux agreement once everyone gets to the "real world." For example, when I asked about "radical practitioners," I was asked, quite overtly by some, to stop asking. However, to be fair, there were several commenters who said that I hadn't asked enough questions. Questions: Are we okay with dissonance? Isn't that part of being a lifelong learner?

Networking is something that I think we do fairly well…as long as it's within the safety of our silos. How many Student Affairs professionals go outside of the box when they pick professional development opportunities? One of the reasons why I am so thrilled about the Big Ideas in Higher Education Conference* that Rutgers University is hosting is that it is completely different than most of our "usual" events. The speakers lineup is full of folks who will definitely make everyone think critically and who will give attendees a broader network of connections. Questions: What events do you attend that are outside of your professional box? How do you expand your network?

Observing was positioned as "watching the world…for surprising stimuli." Sometimes I think that we try so hard to create formalized assessments that we miss the random asides…those things that we didn't predict, but that actually benefit our students. Question: What have you observed recently at work that you didn't predict?

Experimenting is something that requires time. We rarely have enough of it. It's usually not a formal part of our professional day-to-day. I love that the Co.Design piece defines experimenting as "consciously complicating…by trying new things or going to new places." Questions: When was the last time that you took some time and experimented? Were you rewarded for doing it? How is Student Affairs relentlessly reinventing itself?

The path to innovation in Student Affairs really needs just one key ingredient to get jump-started at most institutions: a dynamic leader. Higher Education, of which Student Affairs is included, is astoundingly hierarchical. We may say that we don't appreciate or value it, but we easily slide into a top-down space more often then not. Our leaders often dictate whether or not we can be innovative. The best leaders in our sphere realize that they are the key to big picture innovation. Leaders who approach innovation as "normal" need to be cultivated…we have to support them just as they support us.

What does innovation in Student Affairs mean to you?

*Full disclosure: I'm giving the opening talk at the Big Ideas in Higher Education Conference on "Passionate Radical Practitioners."

 

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