Chapter 2: Building an Innovation Culture in Higher Education

by Amy Novak, Ed.D.

Posted on October 01, 2019

Download as a PDF

Download as a PDF

A little more than a decade ago, as the university I serve prepared for a visit from its regional accrediting agency, a senior faculty member characterized the institution in the following terms: “We are a mediocre university, with a mediocre faculty and mediocre facilities, serving a mediocre community.” At the conclusion of the accreditation site visit, the Higher Learning Commission described the faculty relationship with the then president as “highly tenuous” and the University as being “without focus.”

The challenges the Dakota Wesleyan University faced at that point included a rising discount rate, declining enrollments, low student retention rates, a bloated curriculum, poor assessment practices, an inability to attract and retain strong faculty members, red budgets, and rising student accounts receivables. The University faced a critical decision: courageously reposition itself, or continue along the road of mediocrity and hope for a shift in the winds of fortune. 

Today, unfortunately, the list of challenges facing small universities like my own has only grown longer. Tragically, many university leaders find themselves trapped in a reactive posture from day one on the job, responding to demands to fix problems that have been years in the making and resolve a never-ending succession of crises. 

Reactionary leadership often leads to a series of quick-fix strategies: cost containment decisions, the elimination of programs, outsourcing services, and/or larger draws from university endowments. This pursuit of short-term solvency in an effort to “right the ship” might allow for near-term survival, but it often does so at significant institutional cost, leaving in its wake fear, anxiety, and distrust, effectively undermining the capacity for positive, authentic, and enduring change. 

As Dakota Wesleyan University faced its moment of decision, the board courageously rejected quick fixes and embraced a leadership effort prioritizing the development of an innovative campus culture as the primary strategy for repositioning the university. Over the course of the next decade, the university placed a cycle of innovation at the core of the campus culture.

The board courageously rejected quick fixes and embraced a leadership effort prioritizing the development of an innovative campus culture as the primary strategy for repositioning the University.  

Over time, this approach paid appreciable dividends as the University succeeded in shifting its culture (step by step) from one characterized by a scarcity mindset and widespread distrust to one that embraced experimentation, fostered innovation, and initiated the development of systems to ensure long-term sustainable growth. The innovation cycle consists of five phases, which flow in an evolutionary and continual cycle: ideation, intelligence, iteration, implementation, and impact assessment. In the early stages, each phase may be seen as a discrete element. However, as the culture of innovation matures, one finds that all elements of the cycle are occurring constantly and simultaneously. Moreover, as the innovation cycle becomes more firmly integrated in an institution’s culture, it engages the entire community in becoming problem-solvers and innovators as the university’s constituencies seek, collectively, to respond in relevant ways to the constituencies it serves. In what follows, I offer a brief sketch of each element of the innovation cycle. 


In this phase, faculty, staff, students, alumni, regional business leaders, and other constituencies share ideas about how the university might better serve its constituencies. A university that regularly invites people to generate ideas through structured ideation sessions, advisory boards, or other input mechanisms cultivates a culture in which all constituencies have a voice, and a stake, in the vitality and viability of the university. 

One of our university’s more successful ideation opportunities was an innovation summit. Regional business leaders, faculty, staff, and alumni participated in a four-hour focused listening and input session. More than 110 persons representing nine different industry sectors attended the session. Thought leaders offered focused presentations supplemented by videos and statistical trend analyses. Participants were then invited to provide feedback from various industry sectors about trends shaping their respective industries, challenges related to their labor force, and skill deficits they were encountering in new hires The University collected extensive data from the Summit. This data made its way, in turn, through additional phases of the cycle, eventually informing the creation and revision of curriculum and the launch of innovative adult learner certificate programs that responded to industry needs of the region. Additionally, the Summit helped forge relationships between business leaders and faculty, led to financial support for new program creation, created new internship opportunities, and increased philanthropic giving. The Summit also directly challenged the critique of higher education’s lack of responsiveness to industry. 

The second phase of the innovation cycle involves the procurement of intelligence—data analytics or market research—regarding a particular idea. The business summit provided one form of intelligence, but institutions fostering a culture of innovation need to be prepared to make investments to discern the potential viability and marketability of new initiatives. In some cases, data may be collected within the institution. In other cases, data may be available through state or regional databases. Often, a full-blown market analysis is not necessary to move an initiative forward. Leaders feel obligated to invest in extensive market analyses when there may be other strategies to test the ideas in ways that yield more valuable or actionable data. 

Phase three offers institutions a way to test projects for viability that may spare them from making significant initial investments in untested initiatives. The iteration phase, otherwise known as the pilot project phase, allows institutions to test initiatives and understand responses to such initiatives. For example, two years ago, our faculty adopted a commitment to digital pedagogy which included a one-to-one device initiative. Two years prior to full adoption and approval by the faculty, however, several investments were made to test the viability of the new digital pedagogy. Several faculty members attended initial trainings and volunteered to pilot the use of digital pedagogies in their classes. The pilot allowed the faculty to work through issues and understand the potential pitfalls and opportunities that the new pedagogy presented. These results were then shared with the full faculty who were able to embrace the new pedagogical approach with more enthusiasm, in part because of the confidence gained through the pilot project, the modifications made to the institution-wide rollout that were considered because of the pilot, and the overall student feedback from the pilot courses. 

Recently, the University piloted a new model for adult learning that supplemented traditional online learning with supplemental coaching from practitioners. The positive impact assessment from the pilot has led the University to explore utilizing this sort of coaching in other adult learning programs. Faculty are often reticent to embrace new initiatives, and administrators are often intimidated by the tremendous investment required for full-scale implementation. “Pilots” provide opportunities for a “proof of concept” and help to ascertain the viability of new initiatives. “Pilots” also allow the university to have multiple test projects occurring simultaneously, thereby fostering greater opportunities for expansion of revenue generating initiatives, rather than relying on a succession of high-stakes initiatives that repeatedly put “all eggs in one basket.”

The implementation phase of the innovation cycle builds upon the lessons learned through the pilot during the iteration phase. Some projects never make it to this full-scale implementation phase or, alternatively, may be radically revised and re-piloted before making it to full-scale implementation. A partnership arrangement with an outside vendor to run the University’s fitness center went through several pilot phases before being fully implemented. The creation of a digital media and design major, that was developed with the philanthropic support of a regional technology enterprise, began as a handful of courses within the communications curriculum before being revised, modified, and implemented as a full-scale major aligned with industry internships. While the implementation phase of most major initiatives requires the most significant investment, boards and university leaders feel more confident in launching new initiatives that have progressed through an intentional process of ideating, gathering intelligence, and testing through pilot projects, prior to moving forward with a full-scale launch. 

Many university leaders seek quick impacts and are drawn to full-scale implementation before piloting new initiatives. These types of large-scale implementations, without the benefit of a pilot phase, often fail to successfully launch because of lack of faculty, staff, donor, or student buy-in. Our experience strongly suggests that support from board members, faculty, and business leaders is significantly strengthened by a more intentional process characterized by the innovation cycle. It also requires less upfront investment and assists in confirming the accuracy of a business plan for a particular project. In one case, the University launched a pilot of a new initiative and was never able to secure sufficient students to justify the full-scale redeployment of a significant number of faculty. Thus, the initiative was scratched. Using the innovation cycle methodology allows for a more accurate business plan to be developed and approved in support of new initiatives. 

Impact Assessment
As new initiatives are continually implemented, university leadership and appropriate university committees must continue to monitor their impact. For some initiatives, the lifecycle may be only a few years or perhaps a single cohort. For others, the initiative may continue to expand over time, building the net revenue base of the university. These outcomes include student learning assessments, net revenue goals, enrollment and retention goals, cost savings, visibility indicators, and others. Ongoing evaluation and impact assessment of new initiatives is critical to creating financial sustainability in an innovation-driven culture. The idea that universities only add programs and never consider the deletion of programs limits future innovation. Savings realized by closing programs that have reached the end of their respective lifecycles allows the university to shift resources toward other new initiatives. 

Use of the innovation cycle recognizes the inevitability of failure in conjunction with innovation. Not everything will work; however, application of the innovation cycle methodology enables failure to happen at less cost to the university. More ideas can be tested more quickly for viability. Culture shifts occur as new ideas are tested and greater buy-in is achieved through the piloting process. The institution encounters less risk in the adoption of a new initiative using the methodology. People embrace a higher level of risk tolerance and become active change agents as opposed to skeptical naysayers. 

Use of the innovation cycle recognizes the inevitability of failure in conjunction with innovation. Not everything will work; however, application of the innovation cycle methodology enables failure to happen at less cost to the university.  

As the list of challenges facing higher education (and particularly small, private higher education) grows ever longer and more challenging, the impulse for university leaders is often a reactionary one. Take control. Do something. Create dramatic change. Find and pull the levers that will right the ship and set it on a course for success. As strong as this impulse is, it is probably the wrong impulse, and it is wrong for a number of reasons. First, it assumes the overall soundness of the current model of higher education. Higher education needs to be feeling its way toward what is next. The fact that we do not know exactly what that will look like understandably generates a great deal of anxiety, but it doesn’t change the reality. Second, bold and dramatic actions, particularly when they don’t work out as anticipated, undermine institutional trust and generate even more skepticism for the next round of bold and dramatic actions. 

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the most productive response to moments of critical decision at colleges and universities may be to cede control, to facilitate conversations across university constituencies about what the university might become. To launch a score of pilot programs to see what works and what might make it to the next level. To nurture a cultural of innovation, a culture that transforms employees into stakeholders, not just in their own jobs, but in the relevance and vitality of their institution. This path, obviously, is not without its own risks. Ceding control is not the same as advocating a free-for-all. The high-achievement world of higher education can struggle with the notion of accepting that not all pilot projects will be successful. But if higher education is to evolve in ways that ensure its continued relevance and vitality, embracing a culture of innovation seems a more likely road to get us to that place.