5 Steps Towards Creating an Innovation Culture at a University

Our president here at Miami University, David Hodge, gave his annual address titled “A Culture of Entrepreneurial Spirit” on September 29th this year. It was a good speech, balancing an honest view of the challenges we face with a positive attitude that we will overcome them and be better for it, and how we’re going about tackling some of the challenges. Read it for yourself on his website. It’s worth the time.

In it he discusses the benefits of an entrepreneurial approach and how this impacts culture. This embodies looking at innovative ways to do things like doing new things for the same amount of resources spent, decreasing frustration with existing processes, etc. And, of course, bringing in more revenue is never bad. This general approach can increase your competitive advantage by considering different ways of doing things, and give you better outcomes, which for us is mostly defined by attracting great students and producing excellent, successful graduates.

So the big guy says this is a strategic direction for us. How do we make it happen? I started looking around for models on implementing innovation, and came across one outlined by Desouza, et. al. (2009). Their representation of the innovation process is pictured below.

The Innovation Process (Desouza, et. al. 2009)

In reviewing their model (idea generation & mobilization>advocacy & screening>experimentation>commercialization>diffusion & implementation), it became clear that there are things we must do if we want to create an environment in which innovation thrives. Here’s my take on five things we need to do. There are more, but these stood out as key levers to get us going towards an entrepreneurial culture, so that anyone can be innovative wherever they are on an org chart.

Step 1: Reduce bureaucracy

(key in all phases, but particularly in idea generation and advocacy)

Entrepreneurs and innovators do new and different things. Sometimes they are in line with existing practices, but many times the new thing is contrary to the status quo. Innovation is creativity with a vector. These ideas and practices may break existing rules or at least push them hard enough to give them a good blister. The university is a wonderful environment, but from my vantage point, outside of the direct academic pursuits of teaching and research, there is process and policy inertia that must be overcome to give innovators room to flourish.

Stuck in the mud

Is this your idea?

We have incredibly bright people who generate great ideas. I wonder how many great ideas lay fallow and unrealized, because people don’t know what to do with them?  Other times, when ideas actually get surfaced, we bog them down between the powerful pincers of process and policy.  Over time it’s not just the ideas we lose, we significantly reduce individuals desire to bring forward those ideas. Think about it. If you are continually told no, or worse, reprimanded for trying different things, then you’re going to stop. We seek rewards and avoid pain, which is our survival instinct kicking in. If it happens enough it will become the culture. How many times have you heard, “It won’t work. We tried that before.”

As leaders, can we help people get their ideas off the ground and give them some help to move it to the next phase or empower them to take steps locally? Are you comfortable getting uncomfortable? Do you value the process or the outcome more?

Step 2: Understand and manage the balance between risk and business value

(key in  Advocacy and Screening Phase and Commercialization)

We are generally risk averse, and many times I hear “why should we do this?” instead of “why shouldn’t we do this?” Now, I’m NOT saying that we should accept every risk, but I think many times we don’t understand the risk of doing or not doing something in terms of financial or strategic consequences. Status quo is typically an easier path at a university, and climbing the hill to get beyond this can be pretty steep.

In the past I’ve been frustrated by legal counsel regarding implementing new initiatives, but recently I had a moment of clarity to understand my perceived problem. Legal counsel is a wonderful partner in understanding the liability and risk side of the equation, but it isn’t necessarily their job to present the business value side of the equation. If you have a strong case on the liability side with little to no real definition or quantification of the business side, the resulting trend towards risk aversion is completely understandable. But never forget maintaining status quo has its own risk.

Oh, and the earlier you bring in those who represent mitigating the risk side of your effort, the more likely you are to wind up with a successful end with loads less frustration on all sides. Managing risk and surprises are not happy companions.

Can we reduce the effort to challenge the status quo and create risk profiles across different areas? Can we do a better job of defining the business value for things that insert risk, so we can do a better job balancing risk and value?

Step 3: Learn from failures. They are an inevitable part of the innovation process.

(key in Experimentation Phase)

One key element of entrepreneurship and innovation is accepting failures and learning from them. We’re not talking failure from lack of trying or patent neglect of duties. Those are performance management issues. However, even with much brilliance and energy, not every idea is going to be a winner, and winning ideas won’t be executed successfully every time. You need to understand where the failure occurred and why. With resiliency, tenacity, whatever word you want to use, innovators need to know how to bounce back from failure. Should you go at it again with a different approach?  Were the resources right? Was it just bad timing? Has something in the environment changed to make the timing better?

As you gain understanding of the problem you are solving and there is a mismatch between it and the solution you are engineering, you may have to kill and start over or recast your original idea and change mid-stream? In the start-up world, this is called a “pivot.” You have to be careful not to fall in love with an idea because sometimes you have to pull the plug on them for various reasons. This agility is key to coming up with repeatable successes.

Another thing to consider as you learn from mistakes is diversity. Did you get enough input? Was that input from people who will use the innovation? Was it from people who think differently than you do and/or come from different backgrounds and perspectives? Strengthen an initial idea with opinions. Even if you disagree and choose to maintain your specific vision à la Steve Jobs, you will have heard what critics may say.

twitter fail whale blowfishFailures can be beautiful

Do you bury failures as quickly as possible? Instead, can you create a dialogue to openly discuss failures without a sense of being punitive, and can you glean information that can help you next time? Can you help your people get a Can-Do attitude?



Step 4: Design and Execute with Sustainability in Mind

(key in Experimentation, Commercialization, and Diffusion/Implementation)

I’m all about the green movement, but that’s not the type of sustainability to which I’m referring. What I mean here is to understand the intended duration of an implemented innovation. In academia, I believe we are still somewhat wed to the era where universities showed success by growing the number of buildings whose systems typically have a 50-60 year lifecycle. For the most part, the innovations that come up at a university won’t be brick and mortar and may only be relevant for 2-3 years. That’s OK, but you should enter the process with some idea of how long something will be relevant. This will guide how much resource you expend in the later stages of the innovation process where you scale up to production.

This will also impact your speed and time to market. Is it more important to get something done quickly, be first, and iterate if you need to?  Or, is it more important to be right when you get to market? The answer will vary by case, but clearly last to market with a miss is the worst option!

When you create something, are you deliberate in understanding it’s term of relevance? Does your idea come with planned obsolescence or do you expect to maintain it forever? If it is a service, do those using it understand that it will be going away at some point?

Step 5: Implement a Reward System

(key across ALL phases)

This, I believe, is the most crucial part of creating an innovation culture. If the reward incentive is strong enough, people will make it through most any challenge. As you move to execute innovation, successful behavior change targets should be selective, rewarded, and modeled (Recardo, 2011). Rewarding and highlighting the desired behavior will help set the culture much faster than just talking about what you want. With budgets tighter and specific rules in place for certain types of funding sources, this can be difficult to accomplish, but remember it’s not always money people are after. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and safety are taken care of, people need love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization too! Think about these things in terms of your reward structure.

Innovators do things because they see the world as it could be, but, as a leader, you  must own a great deal of responsibility by sensing and responding to the environment, managing, and sustaining behaviors towards a goal. While the stewardship for applying and increasing these attributes for an organization rests with management, the people closest to the problems and frustrations can be a great source of innovation and competitive advantage (Amiri, 2010) for the university. Technology can be a great part of your competitive strategy, but long term, sustainable competitive advantage from comes from people who will continually innovate and keep you relevant. Make sure you protect your most valuable asset.

Do you know what motivates your people? Have you asked them?

Getting the Points Across Through a Team-Building Exercise

I just had my all staff meeting where I wanted to get this conversation started and have people thinking on how THEY participate as innovators at every level. We did an exercise where I gave them a folder with 8 pieces of construction paper, some masking tape, a drinking straw, some markers, and some paper clips. They had 20 minutes to build the tallest structure in teams. I got the idea from a class that I had taken, but the gist of it is here, at the TeamPedia website as well. That site looks interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to look around a lot.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower: a tall structure

It was fun to watch as some began building without discussion; some began probing me to find the boundaries of what they could use, and then actively pushing and crossing those boundaries; and some were really worried about their design being copied. At the end of the exercise each placed their project on a judging table where they presented their team name, a little about they went about the project, and any special features. We looked at height, then I added two “sustainability” challenges, which consisted of a fan at the other end of table to simulate high winds and me rocking the table to simulate a tremor.

At the end of the exercise, we talked about the points mentioned above and how each and everyone of them could be innovators at any level across the university. Everyone had the same materials, but each team had a different take on the design and implementation. The event got pretty good feedback and was certainly better than a death-by-PowerPoint meeting!


Amiri, A. N. (2010). Increasing the Intellectual Capital in Organization : Examining the Role of Organizational Learning. European Journal of Social Sciences, 14(1), 98-109.

Desouza, K. C., Dombrowski, C., Awazu, Y., Baloh, P., Papagari, S., Jha, S., & Kim, J. Y. (2009). Crafting organizational innovation processes. Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, 11(1), 6–33.

Recardo, R. J. (2011). Taking a fast-cycle approach to align organizational culture with business plans. Global Business and Organizational Excellence, 30(3), 32–40.

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