Category Archives: Innovation

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

Lessons from evolutionary biology

biology“There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.”  – Jeff Lawrence

This statement really rings true. Our organizations are made up of shared values, structures, cultural and behavioral norms. These have contributed to the organization’s success and have made it survive in the past. But what can you do as a leader if the current values, culture, behavioral norms, and structures only reinforce the status quo and don’t  support building organizational capacity to meet future challenges?

That’s where leadership expert and author Ron Heifetz says that we need to practice adaptive leadership, “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”  The challenges we face in higher education today are indeed tough — from funding and demographic shifts, to changes in how we deliver education — and will require a different approach than the one that has made colleges and universities successful in the past. To illustrate this concept of adaptive leadership, Heifetz draws lessons from evolutionary biology, where he says successful adaptation has three characteristics:*

  1. It preserves the DNA essential for the species’ continued survival
  2. It discards (reregulates or rearranges) the DNA that no longer serves the species’ current needs
  3. It creates DNA arrangements that give the species the ability to flourish in new ways and in more challenging environments

Drawing from these three characteristics, Heifetz gives leaders the following helpful insights.  I’ve added some corresponding questions that you might consider as you mobilize people to tackle tough challenges:

  • Adaptive leadership is about CHANGE that enables the capacity to thrive. As in evolution, new combinations and variations can help organizations thrive under challenging circumstances.  Ask: What can be done differently to address a challenge?
  • Successful adaptive changes build on the PAST rather than jettison it.  Ask: What should you preserve from the past and what is expendable?
  • Organizational adaptation occurs through experimentation.  Ask: What can you try or pilot in order to meet a complex challenge?
  • Adaptation relies on diversity. The secret of evolution is variation. Ask: How can you include diverse views into your decision-making processes?
  • New adaptations significantly displace, reregulate, and rearrange some old DNA.  Ask: How will you prepare people for loss that might occur with change?
  • Adaptation takes time.  Significant change is the product of incremental experiments that build up over time. Ask: How will you stay in the game for the long-term?

Anita Rios

*(Source: Heifetz, Ronald; Grashow, Alexander; Linsky, Marty. (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press)

Building your professional network

networking2 safe-to-useI really enjoy my job. I am not in the job market. I spend time nurturing my professional networks.

For some people, one of these things is not like the others. They have the mistaken impression that networking is something you do when you are looking for a new job, or for some other work-related favor.

For me, building and nurturing professional networks has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Looking back, I can see how my professional development has been enhanced by involvement in academic and human resources organizations. In addition, I can identify at least four groups where I was able to learn new things and make long-term professional friendships (shout-out to Communicators Forum, Women’s Leadership Institute, Project and Change Management Collaborators, and Art of Hosting mates).  These were participant-driven organizations where people worked together to support each other and make a difference in their organizations and the wider community.

For example, I formerly was an HR consultant at the University of Minnesota and worked with many groups that were experiencing change. Other colleagues worked with change-related projects from the IT and Facilities viewpoints. We were all seeing part of the picture, and there was a lot of wasted energy and rework. A few initial conversations eventually led to a vibrant group that still meets monthly to share ideas about leading change, develop common project management tools, and collaborate on overlapping projects. This new way of working together proved very effective.

A recent article in Forbes listed some of the reasons why this type of networking is beneficial:

  • It helps you hone your ideas and test your executive presence
  • It challenges you to commit to something that is not always easy
  • It allows you to reach out beyond titles and hierarchy
  • It promotes peer learning
  • It helps you look outside of your current position toward future career opportunities

I understand why our MnSCU leadership competencies include “networks with innovative thinkers, developers, and donors.” Reaching outside of our normal circles can provide new insights, as well as build the foundations for mutually beneficial collaboration.

What have you done recently to build and nurture your professional networks?

–Dee Anne Bonebright

Barriers, what barriers?

If innovation was easy, we would all be doing it!

Ok, I just made that quote up but it captures the essence of a leader needing to proactively identify and remove barriers to innovation. Some barriers are easy to see, like access to needed information or expertise, and you can take quick action to remedy the situation. Other barriers are much harder to see. In fact, some may not even be present anymore but still stop your people in their tracks!

underwater-photo-big-pike-eso-32739506As a lake-cabin-owning Minnesotan the following blog caught my eye this summer (Blanchard LeaderChat). Dick Ruhe describes an experiment called the “Pike Syndrome” which suggests that even unseen barriers or historical barriers can stop your people from taking the risks, collaborating and trying the new ideas that are required for innovation.

Before you can remove barriers, large or small, present or past, you must be able to recognize them. Sarah Bridges, Ph.D.,  a psychologist and leadership consultant, has introduced a concept called Environmental IQ that can help you identify important barriers that your people face. Sarah Bridges Whitepaper  Environmental IQ highlights the overall importance of situational, or environmental, factors in success at work.

  • Demographics
  • Technology
  • Financial
  • Resources
  • Geography/Proximity
  •  Regulations
  • Internal Politics
  • Competition
  • Community

These same environmental factors may also be barriers to innovation for your people. By using Dr. Bridges’ checklist, that we modified for higher education, you can initiate conversations and identify barriers that your people are currently facing, or have faced in the past, that are stopping them from taking action to innovate. Situational Awareness Worksheet – MnSCU version  Knowing what the actual barrier is gives you a better chance to take action to help your people overcome it or to remove it from their environment.

What are some of the barriers your people face when they need to be innovative and how have you helped them get past the barriers?

Todd Thorsgaard

Finding ideas everywhere!

Systems designed to be innovative. . . change by being open to trying new and different things, by acknowledging constraints and opportunities popping up all around, and by committing to adaptive responses. They change by consciously creating space where willing people can demonstrate different approaches.
–Center for Policy Studies

A 2012 Center for Policy Studies report, From Lagging to Leading, clearly documents the future challenges facing higher education in Minnesota and in the United States. It concludes that our current system is not sustainable without disruptive change – a level of change that will require us to lead the kind of innovative systems described above.

As leaders, we are being asked to recognize what is working in the present, keep it going, carry forward what will work in the future, AND build capacity to succeed in the future through innovation and new ideas. One way leaders can become more innovative is to actively step outside of their own area of expertise and learn from the work being done in other disciplines.  Today I want to step over to the biology field and share some recent work I found that focuses on how to create the space needed for people to find new ideas.

Janet Crawford, an environmental scientist and consultant who applies neuroscience research to leadership and organizational culture, was recently interviewed in Forbes magazine.  Over three articles she provides an overview of how understanding human biology can help organizations improve.  The ideas that caught my eye were her four practical tips, based on brain research, to increase innovative thinking.

  1. Nurture the biological aspects of the brain that have been shown to relate to innovation.
    • adequate sleep
    • healthy diet
    • social connection and interaction
    • manage stress levels
  2. Develop a large pool of available inputs by exposing the brain to:
    • new and different ideas
    • new and different cultures
    • new and different disciplines
    • new and different people and environments
  3. Open the brain to recognizing new ideas as an opportunity instead of a threat by reducing social and emotional threats with a safe and inclusive work environment.
  4. Allow the brain to try out new ideas by creating forums where people can play, prototype, take risks and fail.

Leaders in higher education can use these tips from biology to enhance their own innovative thinking and to support innovation across their institutions.

What leadership ideas have you learned when you stepped outside of your own network, discipline or usual circle of reading?

Todd Thorsgaard

Collaborating across boundaries

bridgeAs leaders, we are often more comfortable working within familiar frameworks and with familiar stakeholders. While the work isn’t always easy, it is at least somewhat predictable and we have an idea about the conversations that need to occur.  But what does it look like when we move into new ways of collaborating?

In order to address the challenges facing our system, we are going to have to look at collaborations across institutions, with government agencies, local and regional business partners, other public K-12 and higher education systems, and many varieties of nonprofit agencies.  While many of our leaders are skilled at building these relationships, we are all going to have to learn more about crossing boundaries.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to take a course through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrative Leadership. For a lot of reasons, it was eye-opening and significant in my development as a leader. Much of what I learned applies directly to our MnSCU leadership competency of collaborating across boundaries.

The Center for Integrative Leadership defines integrative leadership as leading across  sectoral, cultural, and national boundaries to advance the common good. This quote from the Center’s website proposes six ideas that help frame their efforts:

  1. Leadership is fundamental to making progress on long term grand challenges and addressing issues of the common good;
  2. Often leadership is most needed at the places where conflicting world views, beliefs, and knowledge intersect;
  3. The most powerful acts of leadership are those empowering others to make positive change;
  4. Building broad capacity for acts of integrative leadership may have greater global impact than exclusively working with individuals in positions of formal authority;
  5. Acts of leadership flow from person to person.  When viewed this way, acts of leadership that address grand challenges become everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s opportunity.
  6. Fostering collective action is a skill that can be learned.

Based on these propositions, integrative leadership is everyone’s responsibility. In your leadership role, which boundaries are most challenging? What are steps you can take to reach across them?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Nurturing innovation

risk taking“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking risks, and that means you’re not going anywhere. The key is to make mistakes faster than the competition, so you have more chances to learn and win.” –John W. Holt, Jr., author of Celebrate Your Mistakes

A key to leading innovation is to encourage risk-taking among your team. Yet, in a study I reviewed from Blessing White, they found that at least half of all leaders struggle to effectively drive innovation and encourage risk-taking. They also found that even the most skilled leaders and the most talented employees are often held back by an organization’s culture that rewards short-term results, punishes failure, impedes collaboration, and rejects change. Even more disconcerting, in telephone surveys of 1,190 US and UK employees, only 26% said that they are often and regularly encouraged by their manager to look for new solutions or to take risks. Does any of this sound familiar to you?  Have you felt like you and your team have been stymied by competing priorities, fear of failure, lack of collaboration, or resistance to change?

If so, as a leader, what can you do to nurture innovation?

Here are a few ideas gleaned by leadership experts and researchers at BlessingWhite:

  • Align your team. Communicate a clear purpose that supports your organization’s mission, strategy, and priorities over and over, so that you avoid irrelevant creativity. Then encourage your team find better ways of doing their jobs.
  • Inspire action. Be a role model and take risks. If you fail, openly share your story and lessons learned and your team will be more likely to follow your lead.
  • Coach the right behaviors. Encourage and vet ideas. Help employees prioritize. Recognize and reward success, by regularly acknowledging small successes.
  • Trust and build trust. Extend trust to your employees to take the right risks. Listen to your employees ideas with openness. And turn failures into lessons learned.

If your part of the organization clings to status quo or punishes risk taking, it will require an extra dose of courage on your part to lead innovatively. Even so, I encourage you to start small by removing obstacles for your employees, discussing and resolving silo or turf conflicts, and building off of incremental successes.

What is your greatest challenge in leading innovation and encouraging risk-taking? And what strategies have you used to support innovation and risk-taking?

Anita Rios