Why Innovations Fail

Ten hard-won lessons.

July 23, 2019

Failed experiments litter the higher educational landscape. Among the most notorious was Robert Maynard Hutchins's attempt, at the University of Chicago, to develop a lower-division curriculum based entirely on the “great books,” which deeply divided the faculty and harmed the institution’s efforts to maintain its top leadership position in graduate and professional education.

Sometimes – as with Columbia University’s Fathom, a precursor to edX and Coursera – an innovation arises prematurely. At other times, good ideas, like cognitive tutors in college math, work, demonstrate results, but are not widely adopted. At the same time, some innovations fade only to resurface years later (like Fred Keller’s plan for personalized learning), while other – think online graduate programs – immediately catch on and spread like wildfire.

Still, other innovations fail repeatedly. For example, every generation has had to relearn the lesson that for-profit higher education results in deceptive recruitment practices, the misuse of financial aid, and dismal completion rates.

In response to a recent blog posting, I was asked to provide a postmortem on why innovation initiatives like those that UT Austin and the UT System launched failed to achieve their goals. Let me share ten hard-won lessons.

1. Because institutional leaders and key stakeholders failed to agree on an urgent problem that needs to be solved or a huge opportunity that needs to be seized.
Nothing, said Dr. Johnson, better focuses the mind than a hangman’s noose.  Without a sense of urgency, innovations are sure to falter, flail, and ultimately fail. The motivation can be existential – a recognition that an institution’s survival hinges on innovation – or aspirational – for example, to elevate the institutional profile.  It can be imposed from outside, for instance, from accreditors; or from within. Often, it stems from a desire to compete with peer institutions. 

2. Because an initiative’s leader fails to devise a carefully focused and realistic strategic plan and to effectively communicate an inspiring vision
Without a practical, pragmatic plan with clear benchmarks, priorities fail to get set and individual initiatives fail to be completed. Often, this is not the leader’s fault.  Sometimes, too many responsibilities are placed on the leader’s lap.  As a result, energy and attention get diverted and misdirected. Focus is essential. An ability to avoid distractions and diversions is crucial to success.

3. Because the initiative fails to achieve buy-in from key stakeholders.
Nothing is more important than sign-off from an institution’s top leadership. Too often, one receives a nod rather than firm, unequivocal backing. When the going gets tough, one cannot assume top-level support.

4. Because the initiative fails to achieve quick wins.
It’s essential to establish a record of accomplishment, and that means identifying and capturing low hanging fruit. A sense of momentum and success is necessary to keep an initiative on track.

5. Because of various institutional impediments, which can be bureaucratic, financial, legal, or technological.
Misplaced incentives, legacy technologies, incumbent processes, entrenched interests, and bureaucratic hurdles all can cripple an initiative. At many institutions, procurement and contracting prove to be slow or derail initiatives.

6. Because an institution plants seeds in a swamp.
Partnerships fail. Interest fades. Innovators depart or shift to other priorities. Investing in individual innovators often proves to be a mistake. Success hinges on getting individual departments or colleges to make a long-term commitment to a particular strategy.

7. Because of a change in institutional leadership or of institutional priorities.
Regents, presidents, chancellors, provosts, and deans come and go, and generally when they do, their successors want to leave their own mark, advance their own agenda, and implement their own vision. Unless an initiative is institutionalized, it is likely to fade.

8. Because time is perishable.
With innovation, the clock is always ticking and there is always a risk that time will run out.  Hence, it’s essential to institutionalize the initiative before it’s too late, and that means achieving financial sustainability.

9. Because the incentives are inadequate or poorly implemented.
Innovation can be expensive. Innovation at its best is a team sport that requires participation by faculty, staff, and administrators working in coordination.  Incentives – money, resources, release time, recognition -- must outweigh the disincentives. Continued confidence in an initiative’s leadership’s competence and commitment is also essential.  

10. Because institutional cultures and systems of governance make top down changes very difficult to implement.
Initiative fatigue, a well-founded sense of skepticism and cynicism, and institutional inertia are powerful forces that impede innovation. Because higher education operates largely by consensus, even a few critics can often bring an initiative to a screeching halt.                   

Institutional transformation is tough work. Radical transformations often require setting up a wholly new institution (like Western Governors) or a wholly separate division (like Southern New Hampshire’s online programming).  

But more modest innovations can take root and flourish, and have a big impact. 

At UT Austin, many of the most exciting initiative have, historically, come from below. These include UTeach Outreach, a service learning program that allows students to get course credit for teaching hands-on science at local elementary schools; UTeach Natural Sciences, a secondary STEM teaching certification program; the Freshman Research Initiative, which gives nearly a thousand students a year opportunity to conduct research in chemistry, biochemistry, nanotechnology, molecular biology, physics, astronomy and computer sciences; or the Emerging Scholars Program in math and science, which replaced remedial services with problem solving, focused on student strengths rather than deficits, and emphasized community and collaboration.

Why did these initiatives flourish? Because of the passionate commitment and visionary leadership of faculty members like David Laude and Uri Treisman, who had an inspiring and singleminded commitment to student success that proved capable of attracting supporters and collaborators. Because these individuals had a “let’s do it” mindset that refused to let impediments stand in their way or to take “no” for an answer. Because these individuals rigorously evaluated their initiatives and offered demonstrated results. And because these innovators knew that the key to sustainability is institutionalization.

Institutions need to encourage this kind of bottom-up approach and faculty experimentation. This is the kind of investment that is most likely to pay off.

Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 to 2017, is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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