Chapter 8: Want to be More Innovative? Ask the Right Questions

by Paul LeBlanc, Ph.D.

Posted on March 01, 2021

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Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is often described as innovative, and we annually rank at the top of the U.S. News & World Report in the “Most Innovative” category. As a result, we have lots of visitors from other institutions seeking to foster a more innovative culture back on their campuses. Culture is hard and is, in many ways, the sum total of how human beings co-exist in an organization—the messy combination of values, expression, reward systems, policies, power, acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors, and more. Changing culture is a heavy lift.

It might be easier to reframe the innovation challenge around a set of pretty practical, but vital, questions. The first one is most basic, which is “Why?” My favorite Einstein quote comes to mind here: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” When colleagues say they want to see more innovation on their campuses, I always want to know more about what they have in mind and try to place their responses in one of three categories: 

  • Innovation that allows a school to keep doing what it does, but to do it better 
  • Innovation that allows a school to keep doing what it does, but more efficiently or for less money 
  • Innovation that remakes what the school does

The first two are about playing by the same rules of the game, but with better quality or efficiency, while the third is about playing a different game or even inventing a new game. Each requires a different innovation playbook. 

Clay Christensen, the famous Harvard Business School professor and author of the seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma (and longtime Southern New Hampshire University trustee), used the phrase “sustaining” innovation for the first two types of innovation and “disruptive innovation” for the third. Sustaining innovations are best nurtured within the existing structures of the institution and powered by the people closest to the day-to-day work. Fostering such innovation—whether a better way to teach physics or to improve the transfer credit evaluation process—is usually a matter of getting people time and money and having the work rewarded, not punished. For example, if a young physics professor knows her tenure and promotion will rest on publishing and departmental committee work, while giving scant weight to her teaching, giving her release time and a grant for improving pedagogy and the student experience will not help. The reward structure is not aligned.

That said, our institutions are pretty good at sustaining innovation. While higher education is often criticized as not being innovative enough, on most campuses one finds less “sage on the stage” lecturing and more engaged learning that takes into account our growing understanding of learning science and high-impact practices. Even a small, rural campus can use technology to link its students studying astronomy to the Hubble Space Telescope and no longer worries about its small library collection. Long gone are the days of students lining up early to register for classes or walking to the Bursar’s Office to pay a bill. When it comes to sustaining innovation, campus leaders have the means to easily move the dial. Yes, changing tenure and promotion policies can be challenging and implementing an improved student information system can be complex and expensive, but there is no mystery to either, and this is well-trod terrain.

Disruptive innovation is more challenging for higher education and requires a different playbook.

However, disruptive innovation is more challenging for higher education and requires a different playbook.

Separate the work. 

Generally, if a leader wants to play the game differently or to play an entirely new game, she must create a dedicated team and give it space and freedom to innovate. Disruptive innovation is nearly impossible within the existing organizational structure, which will see the new work as something to be incorporated and controlled, or expelled, much the way our bodies treat foreign matter. None (or at least little) of this dynamic will come from ill-intent, as Clay’s work illustrated. It will happen because the new work doesn’t fit the existing paradigm and will make no rational sense to those doing good work within it. Leaders have to buffer the team from the rest of the organization—its policies, governance, and practices. At least for a while.

Serve a different audience. 

Disruptive innovations usually get traction with under-served or non-consuming markets. Online education didn’t take off because campus-based students decided they liked it better. It took off because busy adults holding down jobs and taking care of families couldn’t make the time/place-based offerings of a campus fit into their lives. Online education wasn’t as good as traditional face-to-face learning 15 years ago, but if my option was no learning at all, then I’d accept the shortcomings of online and make it work. As Clay’s work also shows, the rate of improvement for disruptive innovations is rapid, so well-designed online education is as good as traditionally delivered education and often better given the quality assurance tools the technology affords. It is now common.

Know the job-to-be-done. 

Clay worked with one of his HBS students, Bob Moesta, to create a less well known (though increasingly used) body of research around Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) theory. Simply put, the idea is that people pay us to get a job done and when we don’t align what we offer with that job, we create a sub-optimal offering. A traditional campus-based student usually wants an education and a coming-of-age experience, and our campuses have been in an arms race to do the latter better than the competition. Thus, ever more palatial dormitories, food courts, campus organizations, a wider array of travel/study options, and more. However, an online student with a dead-end job, three kids, and a military stint that included service in Iraq has had all the coming of age he can handle. His job is to get a degree as fast as possible—he is stuck and feeling urgent—and to fit his studies into a life already time strained. So the job to be done here puts a much higher premium on convenience, speed to graduation, recognition of what has already been learned, and transfer credit friendliness—items that hardly register for traditional campus-based students. Simply taking what you do for one market segment and offering it in a new form for another market segment rarely works—it ignores the rigorous process of understanding the job you are being paid to do by this new market.

If you wish to serve the same audience or to do the job they ask you to do better than you do it today, you are engaged in sustaining innovation and you should turn back to your existing organization and people. It is very common for leaders to say they want to engage in disruptive innovation but describe instead their frustration in improving their current business. 

There are two contextual questions to be considered when thinking about innovation in one’s institution. The first question to ask of an ostensibly disruptive innovation is, “Does this work within state and federal regulatory frameworks?” Higher education does not invite game-changing innovation because the rules of our game are set by others and not easily changed. We are not like journalism and the music industry, worlds upended overnight. We are more like health care, a regulated industry with third-party payers and very slow to change. So our regulators—the “Triad” of accreditors, state authorizing agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education—have an inordinate shaping role in our innovations. For example, the handful of CBE programs created under direct assessment provisions could radically redefine how education happens and untether it from time as a basis for learning, but the rules for federal financial aid are still very much tied to time-based measures like satisfactory academic progress and term and academic year definitions, thus constraining a genuine disruptive innovation and its scaling. The more your innovations sit outside the regulatory frameworks, the more you can innovate.

The second question is: “Does my school have a fair bit of wealth and status?” The sad fact is that the larger the endowment and greater the selectivity, the less disruptive innovation can flourish. Consider the institutions most often named in the innovation discussion. SNHU was a largely unknown and non-selective local institution that was fiscally stable but not fiscally robust or wealthy. Western Governors University was created from whole cloth. Arizona State University was the party school, poorer cousin of the state flagship university. SNHU is now the largest provider of traditional online degrees, WGU is the largest provider of competency-based degrees, and ASU has re-invented itself and its campus-based programming. All three are creating new innovative programs, extending their reach to new audiences, and rethinking the uses of technology in educational delivery. None could have done so if they had a lot of wealth or a long, proud tradition and lofty status within our industry. What’s possible in one’s institution will be substantially influenced by where it sits in the higher education landscape.

What’s possible in one’s institution will be substantially influenced by where it sits in the higher education landscape.

Finally, when leading innovation efforts in one’s institution, one wants to come back again and again to mission, who is asking you to innovate and why, and to be hard-nosed about what is realistic. For example, online education is no longer innovative. It is common, scaled, and we know how to do it well. Yet for many institutions, moving into online education would be a huge innovation for them. Extending the reach of the institution and serving disadvantaged populations is almost impossible to contemplate for elite institutions. For non-elite institutions, having the necessary capital or talent might be the limiting factor. The pandemic and resulting economic calamity may force some institutions to innovate simply to survive, which can change the internal institutional calculus around resistance to change, what’s possible to contemplate, and the jobs needed to be done. Leaders have to reconcile innovation as they might wish it to be and innovation as is possible at home. 

Whatever the impetus to innovate, the key is to remember that there is a discipline to innovation. Or better yet, consider it a practice. As with all practice, the more you do it, the better you get at it and, at some point, it becomes part of your culture. One doesn’t change culture to innovate. One innovates and culture happens.