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When Not to Innovate!

Sun 29 Apr 2012

A post on another blog recently caught my eye. Gils van Wulfen identifies 21 reasons why you shouldn’t innovate.http://www.innovationmanagement.se/2012/04/24/21-situations-when-you-should-not-innovate/ Many of them struck a chord with me and I’ve distilled them down to my top 10 reasons, suitably adapted to the HE context. So in no particular order of importance here they are...

1.  When you are sure the external context is unlikely to change much over the next five years.

It’s still possible to find significant groups of staff who just don’t see the need for a more radical and speedy response to the changing external context. ‘China becoming a serious HE  player, you’ve got to be kidding’. ‘Open educational resources, sure interesting but they won’t displace the lectures I give’. If you’ve not done enough to shake the complacency don’t  expect innovation to do it for you.

2.  When your old formulas are still giving great results, at no or very little risk.

Related to the above is the further response, ‘look Tom, HE has been around for longer than most other organisations you can imagine, it’s not broke, students will always want degrees, research funders will always want to fund research in universities. Everytime you hear ‘always’ be afraid, they really aren’t givens.

3.   When the urgency to innovate is completely absent.

Sure we need to innovate, absolutely critical – if we had the time. Recent data from one of our 360 feedback instruments caught my eye recently. In the list of ‘contra-indicators’ on which we seek feedback the top one (and for the past 3 years) has been ‘gets caught up in short term fire fighting’. It has grown and grown and is now by far the most common negative factor for HE leaders. That’s at the heart of this issue – if you are going to nurture a culture of innovation we all need to create the time and space. Not easy of course, but if its going to move from one of your new year resolutions which doesn’t get past the 3rd January test some dedicated and disciplined time is crucial.

4.  When everybody says we have to innovate and no one wants to be responsible.

In a sense the responsibility for innovation needs to be shared and distributed. It needs to be viewed as an issue for shared mutual accountability rather than being exclusively focused on the ‘Director of Innovation, Transformation, Change or whatever. I was interested recently to note one of our clients take the bold and correct decision not to recruit a high level ‘Director of Transformation’ rightly concluding that this was already the role of the senior leadership team. On the other hand for innovation to become sustainable it needs some coordination and for an individual with high credibility to be willingly to put their hand up and take on this role. Who is your high level champion? 

5.  When there is no support at the top.

Self evident really, but often so very difficult to really assess. No top leader is going to say we are against innovation (or world peace for that matter), but are they ‘walking the walk’ – are they really open to those new ideas which cut across current orthodoxies, political  boundaries and perhaps their own pet projects? be willing to back the best ideas, take a medium term perspective, take some risks to experiment, etc. If the backing from the top is lukewarm it is possible to innovate but not institutionally. It’s so much easier if it doesn’t feel like you are having to constantly respond to numerous ‘yes, but… we do that, we’ve done that, we couldn’t do that, we can’t do that…why?....well because…

6.  When people in your organisation are not prepared (yet) to break their habits. 

If the prevailing culture and unwritten rules are so strongly embedded against challenging unhelpfully anti-innovation behaviours then the likelihood of institutional innovation being possible let alone sustainable over time is very limited. Elephants need to be described and elephant like behaviours will need to be modified. If leaders are not really up for that, particularly when they might be the culprits the chances of others adapting to new ways of working and volunteering ideas is really very limited. 

7. When there is no vision about where you want to go in the future.        

There is an old Japanese proverb which translates to ‘vision without action is a daydream –  but action without vision is a nightmare’. One might suggest that replacing vision with innovation is also applicable. It’s really important to put innovation in a meaningful context whilst also being careful not to overly constrain the outcomes. 

8. When the vast majority fear failure. 

The one sure thing we all know about innovation is that most of the ideas won’t be widely implemented. However if seen positively all of the ideas will contribute useful learning and insights. If culturally‘we don’t do failure’ and the only news we want to hear is good news then why would any of us wish to engage? If, on the other hand, all ideas are welcomed and we do learn from our ‘lesser successes’ then I think we can all see the upside and will feel the effort is worthwhile. After all we don’t expect instant success in our academic endeavours, experiments are just that experiments to test a hypothesis, a hunch. So lets create opportunities for our creative hunches to be tried out, piloted, evaluated and see what else we might do. 

9. When the culture will attack and ridicule the newness of it.        

The strange and paradoxical thing about many universities is that they can at one and the same time be the most radical and most conservative of institutions. Much as you might expect people in them to embrace and encourage innovation if the agenda crosses a boundary (be it of disciplines or of units) they can suddenly switch – a ‘not invented here’ syndrome can emerge, political power play can block the best of ideas and if not dealt with outright hostility can develop towards those with the ‘bright ideas’ and the messengers can find themselves facing ridicule. At your peril do you allow messenger shooting to become a sport in your institution. 

10.  When important stakeholders will make every effort to block the process.

The final condition is an extension of the previous one and in some instances is just in the nature of innovation. Change creates uncertainty, innovation can threaten the existing  order. Both are quite understandable and predictable. The role of leaders is, however, to recognise when these are acting against the best interests of the institution and are a break on efficiency, effectiveness and progress more generally. So mapping stakeholder interests in the process is critical, encouraging engagement from all stakeholders is vital as is proactive challenge when unhelpful and inappropriate blocking takes place.

In summary I suggest that if more than 3 of these apply don’t even mention the idea of being serious about institutional innovation. It’s really not worth the effort. Better to move to a place where the environment is more conducive to your creative juices!  

So what do you think are the greatest blocks to institutional innovation?

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