Higher education is beset by wicked problems, problems that are exceedingly difficult to solve because any proposed solution is divisive, expensive, difficult to implement and conflicts with other institutional values and priorities.
Controlling costs is a wicked problem that institutions have attempted to address in ways that quite rightly provoke resistance: outsourcing services, increasing class size, relying heavily on adjunct faculty and shuttering programs.
Improving the quality of teaching is another wicked problem that campuses have largely tried to address through a combination of incentives (offering teaching prizes and establishing teaching centers to provide hands-on support) and modest mandates (instituting student teaching evaluations and requiring faculty to identify learning objectives on their syllabus).
Student success is yet another wicked problem. Proactive, data-driven advising, degree-planning software, early alerts and behavioral nudges, emergency grants, and expanded support services help but, in general, only move the needle marginally.
There are the wicked problems that are generally left to a single campus unit, such as career preparation (assigned to a career center), curricular and scheduling optimization (left to individual departments and programs), or establishing a sense of belonging and connection (a responsibility relegated to student affairs).
Then there are problems so wicked that most campuses fail to address these challenges systematically, for example, making the transfer process more seamless or improving the status of adjunct faculty.
Innovation is higher education’s most wicked problem. It requires buy-in from diverse stakeholders, many of whom benefit from the status quo and worry, often with good reason, about the consequences of change. By definition, innovation is disruptive and conflicts with established practices and entrenched interests. Innovations typically have high start-up costs and are rarely self-sustaining. Initiative fatigue quickly sets in, and as leadership and priorities shift, projects are frequently left without champions.
Whenever innovations are imposed from above, faculty reflexively fear a loss of autonomy and a weakening of shared governance.
Under these circumstances, most innovation takes place outside the academic core, in areas where administrators have the most control. Typically, innovations consist of add-ons or enhancements, like a new learning center or a new office of experiential learning, since such additions do not intrude on anyone’s turf.
In today’s volatile, uncertain environment, all institutions must be nimble and ready to adapt to changing circumstances. Innovation, in short, is imperative. But implementing change within higher ed, as you’ve heard, is as difficult as moving a cemetery.
We’d do well, then, to learn from others who have faced somewhat similar challenges. Many for-profit businesses, faced by shifting market conditions, new competitors, rising costs and government mandates, have had to adapt on the fly. A large body of business school literature has emerged that discusses how successful businesses innovate in response to disruption.
You probably already recognize some of that literature:
- John Kotter’s 1996 change management model is among the most influential. Kotter’s top-down model calls on executive leadership to create a sense of urgency, build a guiding coalition, formulate and disseminate a strategic vision, remove barriers to change, focus on short-term wins in order to maintain momentum, and, finally, institutionalize change.
- Steve Denning’s 2011 culture change model offers another top-down approach that stresses the importance of changing an organization’s goals, roles, processes, values, communication practices, attitudes and assumptions. Organizational culture change requires the use of three key tools: leadership tools (e.g., inspiration, persuasion and role modeling), management tools (e.g., strategic planning, hiring, role definition, training), and power tools (e.g. fiat, coercion and threats).
- McKinsey’s 2000 three horizons model offered yet another top-down model that encouraged firms to pursue innovation along three dimensions: continuously improving the firm’s existing business model and core competencies, targeting new customers and markets, and creating new capabilities and businesses to respond to new opportunities or threats of disruption.
There are many other change models:
- That institutions should make a large number of small bets, some of which will lead to big returns.
- That institutions should set up a dedicated innovation unit to challenge orthodoxies, understand emerging needs and disrupt the organization from within.
- That the key to innovation is understanding consumers’ or customers’ shifting needs as well as market forces, industry trends and macroeconomic and demographic developments and responding by offering a clear value proposition.
- That innovation requires an organization to identify existing and approaching challenges and then build a cross-functional team to devise innovative solutions through a process of brainstorming, ideation and prototype creation.
- That innovative institutions keep core competencies in-house while outsourcing other functions to vendors who can provide solutions, support and services more cost-efficiently.
- That innovation requires an institution to closely observe its competitors, peers and exemplars and then model its organization on their best practices.
In general, these business school models of institutional transformation don’t directly apply to colleges and universities, where executive leadership’s power is more constrained; institutional administration is more decentralized and diffuse; decision making is more consensual, collective and collaborative; and stakeholders are more diverse and opinionated.
Despite the many higher education leadership programs, surprisingly few books tell us how best to implement and scale campus-level reforms.
In the absence of a rich and robust theoretical literature or detailed empirical studies, it shouldn’t come as a shock that a wide range of opinions and speculations fill the vacuum. Anecdotes reign supreme.
Innovation, we are told, is driven by charismatic, long-standing presidents, like Michael Crow or Paul LeBlanc or Scott Pulsipher. Or deep-pocketed foundations, especially the Gates Foundation or Lumina. Or consultants like Accenture, Bain, Civitas Learning, EAB or McKinsey. Or service providers who promise the moon. Or accreditors. Or much admired pace-setters (think Freeman Hrabowski or Tim Renick).
The fact is that we don’t know.
Nevertheless, there are certain lessons that our institutions can draw from this business school literature.
1. Innovation is imperative.
All institutions, including colleges and universities, exist within competitive markets, and the failure to innovate leaves an organization vulnerable to disruption.
2. Innovation can take many forms.
It can be transformative or incremental, reactive or proactive, evolutionary or radical, problem focused or future oriented, and carefully planned or nondeliberate. It can be internal or outward facing.
3. Innovation must take place across multiple dimensions.
Change can be organizational or structural, procedural or cultural. Innovation might also involve infrastructure or technology. Lasting changes must usually occur in all of these domains.
4. The impetus for innovation can come from many different sources.
Innovations can be imposed from the top down, but they can also be driven externally or from many points within an organization.
But in most instances that I’m familiar with, responsibility for innovation takes place separate and apart from executive leadership.
- The driver of change can often external. The accrediting process is a powerful force for innovations, both big and small. Why have learning objectives become commonplace? Because these are required by accreditors. Based on my experience, the self-study process and the requirement that institutions collaboratively develop a strategic plan provide essential impetus to innovation.
- External examples often drive innovation. Success stories publicized in the higher education press or by research organizations like Ithaka S+R provide a common source of inspiration. Regional and national convenings are also especially important in disseminating ideas and examples. Increasingly, disciplinary societies have taken it upon themselves to spread examples of innovation.
- The source of innovation can also be internal. In many instances, the most consequential innovations result from the efforts of administrators below the executive level: by an associate provost, a dean or associate dean, a department chair, or from the directors of student affairs or the registrar’s or financial aid office, or some other unit.
Innovations are not necessarily positive. It’s easy to think of educational fads, like open classrooms, that went nowhere. Often, the campus approach to innovation -- providing seed funding for diverse projects -- turns out to be little more than planting seeds in a swamp.
To be successful and sustainable, an innovation must:
- Align with the institution’s mission.
- Offer a clear return on investment.
- Meet widely recognized campus needs.
- Appeal to key stakeholders.
- Reflect widely held academic norms.
Innovation within the academy truly is a wicked problem. Many desirable innovations fall prey to initiative fatigue, leadership shifts, faculty skepticism, inertia, tradition, entrenched interests, incumbent practices, legacy technologies and financial constraints.
Sometimes, a perceived crisis or by a looming opportunity precipitates innovation. But, based on my experience, innovation is driven by committed faculty members or administrators who take it upon themselves to solve a problem not because they expect recognition or a reward or the prospects of professional advancement, but out of a belief that change is necessary and desirable.
In other words, I’m convinced that committed individuals are the true drivers of campus innovation. No individuals are obligated to think of themselves as an innovator or drive of change. But if they don’t, don’t expect innovation to take place organically.
What’s the key to innovation? You.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.