Category Archives: Innovation

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

Strength and flexibility

I have been practicing yoga for several years now. The most challenging poses often are those that require both strength and flexibility, like the crane pose. 2 person crane pose

Leaders in higher education face challenges that also require strength and flexibility, including changing student demographics, ever-changing technology and demands for accountability and demonstrated outcomes. Additional challenges include financial and funding shifts and decreases, increasing competition, and a workforce composed of four generations, all with differing expectations of their employer and manager! To succeed, leaders need to challenge themselves and their institution to take on new and often uncomfortable roles while remaining focused on their mission and vision. In yoga we focus on our drishti, or focal point to stay balanced as we try new poses.

This month’s leadership competency of “Articulates Vision and Mission” includes both the clear focus of a strong purpose and the flexibility required to “lead and encourage adjustments in institutional roles.” In this context, flexibility is not being inconsistent or indecisive. Amazing leaders know how to combine their passions, their strengths, and their productivity to create a strength of purpose. Jim Collins calls this a hedgehog belief, as described in the following video – Hedgehog Concept. When combined with flexibility and nimbleness, that strength provides provides the direction and vision needed to make changes, even tough ones involving traditional roles, long-held views, processes that worked in the past and most difficult of all, your own leadership style and approach!

At Minnesota State Colleges and Universities we are drafting a strategy called “Charting the Future” that clearly defines our strength of purpose as a system of colleges and universities and the need for change. We are being challenged to  forge deeper collaborations and leverage our collective strengths. This will require new governance structures, new roles and responsibilities, new ways of communicating and new ways of leading. Successful leaders will have to demonstrate flexibility and make changes while staying focused on our strategic framework. Hard work for the institution and for each leader.

What are some examples of changes you have made to your leadership style based your hedgehog belief or institutional vision?

Todd Thorsgaard