Category Archives: Innovation

Failure and success

A key strategy for leading change is to empower others to take initiative to support an organization’s change vision and goals. And one of the most important ways a leader can accomplish this is by creating a climate where it is safe to make mistakes.

As we all know, one of the side effects of innovation is failure. You can’t be part of major change efforts without taking risks, and not all risks work out. How we as leaders deal with failure is critical to creating an environment that fosters innovation.

failure free to useThere’s a new trend among some creative companies – the “Heroic Failure Award.”  This award is given an honored place along with the more typical recognition for success. The Wall Street Journal quoted an executive from one of these companies who believed that “if employees try something that was worth trying and fail, and if they are open about it, and if they learn from that failure, that is a good thing.” (Read the article here.)

A contributor to the Harvard Business Review blog made the case for failure even more strongly in a post on “Why I Hire People Who Fail“:

We don’t just encourage risk taking at our offices: we demand failure. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re probably not advancing. Mistakes are the predecessors to both innovation and success, so it is important to celebrate mistakes as a central component of any culture.

Most of us have a hard time celebrating failure – our own or others’. This mindset may be holding us back from creating the kind of new and innovative solutions we need to address tomorrow’s challenges.

Can you identify a time when you tried something new, failed, and learned from it?

How do you typically respond to employees or colleagues who have failed?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Happy Newnew-years-resolution-for-site Year! It is good to be back blogging and taking part in this dialogue with you.

As Anita described, we are looking forward to a lively, back and forth, conversation focused on leading change in higher education. Change is a fact of life. No one can avoid change or stop it, but as leaders, you have the opportunity to take action and lead purposeful change that will make a difference for the students you serve and improve your institution’s viability. Your people also look to you to support them through the changes that are occurring on your campuses. Leading change is like a New Year’s resolution! It makes perfect sense yet can be so hard to keep.

The author and businessman, Harvey Mackay, has a few suggestions to help leaders keep their resolutions. In a recent column he encourages leaders to pick just one or two resolutions and to skip the boring ones. Pick one that excites you and will energize you.  I know that the need for new levels of collaboration that  Charting the Future highlights for MnSCU energizes me and will drive my “resolution” for 2014. To facilitate change  I will be reaching out to a wider set of stakeholders and actively seeking ideas that challenge my assumptions. 

What excites you at your institution and how can you use that energy to “keep” your leading change resolution?

Todd Thorsgaard

Leading with powerful questions

questions1In my last post, I talked about the importance of asking good questions. This can seem obvious, but I’ve found it to be very difficult in practice.  As leaders, it’s easy to believe that we are asking thought-provoking questions, while in reality others see them differently.  How often have you heard people say “He asked for our opinion, but I know the decision was already made.”

Asking powerful questions is one of the most effective ways to involve stakeholders in decisions that affect them, and to increase buy-in to the decision once it’s made. As I’ve been learning more about the art of asking questions, a colleague shared an excellent resource created by the World Cafe and Pegasus Communications: The Art of Powerful Questions. I highly recommend the entire article.  As a sample, here are some questions they recommend to help leaders frame questions that will generate productive dialogue:

  • Is this question relevant to the team’s goals?
  • Do I genuinely not know the answer?
  • What do I want to happen as a result of the question?
  • Is the question likely to generate new trains of thought or new directions?
  • Is this question likely to generate creative action?
  • Is it likely to generate more questions?

As I prepare to lead meetings, I’ve been challenging myself to be intentional about the questions I’ll ask. It really makes a difference in what I bring to the table and in the outcomes that are generated.

Einstein is supposed to have said that if he had only one hour to solve a life-threatening problem, he’d spend the first 55 minutes forming the right question, because then the problem could be solved in the remaining 5 minutes. How much time do you typically spend forming the right question?

–Dee Anne Bonebright

It’s a wrap!

Clap Board

To succeed as a leader and successfully navigate the challenges you face demands making decisions. You are the director of a large cast of faculty and staff who count on you to assess the situation, utilize the expertise of your team and call for “action.” This past summer Chip and Dan Heath examined the past 40 years of psychological research, including the newest work in neuropsychology and behavioral economics, on decision-making and their work can help leaders call for the best “action!”  Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford and his brother Dan is a senior fellow at Duke University. They co-authored Made to Stick and Switch, books that offer practical advice for leaders on effective communication and change management. Their latest book, Decisiveaddresses how to make good decisions.  I want to highlight their 4 step process for improving how people can make decisions.

What has become clear over time is that humans are hard-wired to push for action and we use many mental and emotional short cuts to help us make decisions and move forward. Even with an awareness of our decision-making biases they still have a negative impact on the quality of our decisions. The Heath brothers suggest that we must move past trying to avoid or eliminate our short-cuts and instead utilize a 4 step checklist or framework to ensure that our biases don’t send us down the wrong path.  The framework goes by the acronym WRAP.

  • Widen your options – actively seek out more choices. Engage in debate and don’t rush to narrowing your choices.
  • Reality-test your assumptions – ask questions that challenge your insights and initial responses. 
  • Attain distance before deciding – force yourself to step back and clarify your long-term priorities before you take action. Ignore your immediate excitement at finding a good idea.
  • Prepare to be wrong – focus on success and not proving that you made the right decision. Plan to make changes that will help your decisions succeed in an uncertain future that can’t be predicted.

Keeping the WRAP framework in mind as you grapple with day-to-day issues and make strategic decisions can help you take action to focus on what is truly important and not get side-tracked by our human tendencies.

Todd Thorsgaard

To get innovative decisions, ask good questions

questionOne of the challenges of innovative leadership is to ensure that new ideas and viewpoints are considered when making the wide range of decisions that we face on a regular basis.

In a recent blog on strategic planning, Harvard Business School authors Logan Chandler and Ron Ashkenas gave several pieces of advice about innovative decision making.  They said that while the process should generate “intense debates,” what it more often generates is a set of dense documents, crowded with data and text, that end up on the shelf.

How can we avoid this fate for our decision making processes? I found this advice be the most interesting: to ask provocative questions – the kind that lead to authentic discussion. Here are some of the questions they suggest:

  • What are the top 2 or 3 things that must go right for this strategy to work?
  • If we pursue this strategy, what are we deciding not to do?
  • What specific capabilities will we need to develop in order for this plan to succeed?

Similar to strategic planning, much of leadership decision-making is about asking hard questions and listening carefully for the answers. What strategies do you use to create questions that drive innovative decisions?

–Dee Anne Bonebright


I was listening to a podcast on NPR’s  All Things Considered this week that got me thinking about the Thanksgiving holiday, hectic travel,  family and friend get-togethers  (or at least my family and friends!) and our blog. Passengers at George Bush Intercontinental airport crowd ter

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, shared his “collision” theory of collaboration and innovation. He describes it as “bringing the spirit of a party” to work.  By encouraging random collisions between people new ideas are generated, productivity goes up and an innovative culture is fostered. Taking action as a leader to promote serendipity and almost random networking opportunities between people, within and outside of your institution, is a way to  “institutionalize return on luck.” (Forbes article) Bumping into your distant uncle at the Thanksgiving table or a stranger at the airport or a neighbor at the gas station may just spark a conversation that leads to a new idea next Monday at work!

Hsieh has removed a skyway between two buildings to get his people outside and walking on the public sidewalks so they bump into more people, other organizations have added trivia games to elevator doors to spark random conversations, and National Public Radio hosts “serendipity days” where groups of employees randomly come together to work on projects. (Wall Street Journal – online)

At your campus or in your organization where can you find places for people to bump into each other and perhaps make a connection? Given the opportunity people can find new ideas in the strangest places. Who knows, in addition to catching up on medical conditions and getting some new recipe’s I may get an idea for my next blog at dinner tomorrow!

Have a peaceful Thanksgiving.

Todd Thorsgaard

Finding opportunities for new thinking

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis the Mississippi River was a giant, deep, fast flowing river that we crossed on a large bridge going to grandma’s house. It seemed impossible to swim it or cross it on foot.  The future challenges we face in higher education are as turbulent as the fast flowing river I knew growing up and as daunting to overcome. Yet, as the picture of me crossing the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca demonstrates, the unimaginable can be accomplished if we open ourselves up to innovative thinkers from outside our usual sphere of influence.  Itasca 73_2

The ITASCAproject – Higher Education Partnerships for Prosperity  initiative is an example of collaboration across educational and governmental boundaries that provides leaders in higher education access to a wider network of innovative thinkers. The Itasca Project is an employer-led civic alliance that recognizes the future challenges we face in higher education are beyond the scope and capabilities of any one group and any single jurisdiction. And that we can make the progress we need only through active cooperation among the public, nonprofit and business sectors.  12 executive leaders from business, non-profits and higher education are guided by the input of over 40 business, community and higher education thought leaders.  The report identifies 4 overall strategies:

  1. Align academic offerings with workforce needs
  2. Foster an ecosystem of research and innovation
  3. Form new collaborations across higher education to optimize intellectual assets and efficiency
  4. Graduate more students

The commitment, new ideas and new approaches that wider collaborations, like the Itasca Project, provide to leaders in higher education are the rocks that can help us innovate our way across the turbulent river of higher education in the United States!

Where do you find your new ideas?

Todd Thorsgaard