Category Archives: Innovation

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

Go slow to go fast

This week I had a chance to attend a professional conference and had an enjoyable time getting to know some of my colleagues in academic and student affairs across the MnSCU system.  While there I attended an interesting keynote session on organizational change.

go slow free to useThe speaker discussed the importance of setting a vision and plan for change, but he also stressed the critical need for spending enough time to build the relationships necessary to help the change move forward. He called this “going slow to go fast.”

A recent blog post from Partnering Resources made the same point. The consultant talked about the long-term problems caused by short-term activity that doesn’t identify the core issues or create stakeholder engagement. The post identified two types of pain:

  1. Back-end pain such as political difficulties, false starts, and putting out fires, often caused by too-quick rush to implementation.
  2. Front-end pain caused by impatience to stop all the talking and get moving.

While it can be frustrating, taking time to carefully identify the issues and build strong coalitions can lead to quicker success down the line. Working through the pain on the front end can often eliminate a lot of difficulties later.

What strategies do you use to slow down so you can go fast?

Dee Anne Bonebright

We are all human

Sometimes, the more we learn about people, the more we learn that classic ideas still hold true. In her post Anita shared some of the current research into how our brains react to change and the growing field of neuroleadership.  By studying the brain we have learned that we react to social and emotional stimuli the same way we react to actual physical stimuli. As humans, we all perceive a change as a potential loss or a threat in the same way as a potential physical threat or loss.

This is thetransitions concept that William Bridges shared in his groundbreaking 1991 work Managing Transitions. Bridges suggested that all of us, even people who love change or are leaders of change, go through a psychological transition adjusting to the loss of the known when we are faced with a change. People are not resisting the change or need convincing on the value or need for change.  Paradoxically, you need to start with the endings your people are experiencing to have the dialogue necessary for buy-in and engagement.  Bridges highlights that the  communication they need from you at first must:

  • acknowledge the loss they are feeling
  • clarify what is ending and what is staying the same
  • provide information that helps rebuild stability
  • clearly marks a break from the past

Respecting the past and honoring the losses people are experiencing creates the foundation for a robust future. What losses are your people experiencing as a result of changes? How can you recognize the threats they feel and use that awareness to guide your leadership efforts?

Todd Thorsgaard

Dig deep


Last week I listened to two amazing college and university presidents share their insights with a group of new administrators. Both of these presidents are recognized as forward thinking, innovative leaders who are helping move our system forward despite the chaotic future we face in higher education. As they talked about innovative changes, they both highlighted the importance of understanding the history of their institutions and demonstrating a deep respect for the accomplishments of the past! They also talked about the culture of their institution.  Focusing on past history may sound counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if we dig a little deeper.

Innovation requires change. Change requires new ideas, new processes, and new behaviors. All of these things require your people to do things differently. Despite how clear and compelling the reasons leading to change are communicated, we all experience a feeling of loss when we have to give up a piece of our past in order to move forward.

Successful, innovative leaders recognize the importance of the past and are able to honor it and include it in the vision of the future. This is what came through loud and clear in the stories that these two presidents shared with new administrators. They knew they had to truly understand the history of their institutions. More importantly, they know how proud people are of that history and where they fit into it. One president described herself as a social anthropologist working to understand the past before moving forward. To do that she actively seeks out the stories of her people and recognizes the pride in the work that built her institution. 

That feeling of pride and commitment to the institution is a strong foundation to build on. Taking the time to listen to your people and understand the culture from their perspective will help you engage and involve them in creating a future that you will all be proud of!

Todd Thorsgaard    

Create a compelling story

 “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” – John Kotter

As leaders, we can increase our effectiveness in communicating our organization’s vision and mission, by remembering that we must appeal to people’s emotions first. As John Kotter describes in his book, The Heart of Change, people choose to follow a leader or make a behavior change first based on what they feel, and then on what they think.  In fact, we know from recent neuroscience research that emotion is the fast lane to the brain.

wpid-whats-your-storyTo help people engage with your message and remember it, it needs to be combined with imagery and emotion.  As I’ve learned over time, the easiest and most effective way to create imagery and emotion is through stories. Stories engage people’s hearts and minds. Stories create emotional responses. And stories stick!

Last summer I bumped into someone who had attended a seminar I led about two years ago on Leading Change, she told me she still remembered the Whitewater Rafting story I told as a metaphor for Kotter’s 8-step change model. While, she didn’t remember all 8-steps of the model, the central idea for leading change stayed with her due to the story.  I was amazed!

To take this idea one step further, consider that storytelling can be a strategic activity for a leader. According to storytelling expert David Hutchens , you can create alignment, engagement, and action by telling four core stories about your organization or your part of it.

  • Who we are stories mobilize people around your identity and culture. Remind people “what it means to be us,” and create passion to move forward!
  • Vision stories paint a vivid picture of the future that you desire. When you present the vision as a story, it comes to live and invites people to engage.
  • Stories of Values in action. So your college or university values access and excellence? That’s fine. But to keep the words from ringing hollow, tie those values to credible stories. When brought to life with stories, your values become a differentiator.
  • Stories of Change and Learning are an often-neglected category of organizational story. It’s a risk to appear vulnerable. But if you wish to create a culture of learning and continual improvement, share these stories with a spirit of transparency, humility, and authenticity.

Storytelling is not an activity that comes naturally to me, so I’ve had to work hard to create stories that have the key messages I want to convey, along with emotional triggers that help people engage with the message. (An emotional trigger is any stimulus that activates an emotional response in the listener.)

As Hutchens says, “If you’re a leader, you’re the narrator.” What stories are you telling that communicate your vision and mission to those you lead?

Anita Rios

Predicting the future

“Anticipates change” almost sounds like code for predicting the future. That is a tough requirement to be innovative.  Leaders need to predict the future! If only the Magic 8 Ball ( really worked as a leadership tool.magic8ball

What does it mean to anticipate needed changes, to build capacity for the future, to be prepared and able to respond as new realities appear? The world of higher education is no longer predictable yet leaders are asked to see into the future to be successful. While we still do not have the ability to “see the future” (at least most of us), leaders do have a Magic 8 Ball at their disposal that can help them take action in the present to be successful in the future.

Michael Watkins, in The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter (2013), describes a process of horizontal and vertical conversations for leaders in transition. Given the continuous changes occurring in higher education, leaders are now always in transition. Conducting these conversations  on a regular basis with a wide variety of stakeholders will help you expand your vision and be able to better identify, anticipate and prepare for the unpredictable future you and your team face. They are your Magic 8 Ball for innovative leadership!

Watkins provides great detail in his book but the process involves leaders proactively holding regular conversations with stakeholders from all areas of their institution, at the same leadership level, with more senior leaders, less senior leaders and all levels of front-line staff and faculty. The conversations are primarily listening events with questions focused on better understanding, from their perspective, what challenges, opportunities and issues they believe your institution is facing and why.

By actively seeking out and listening to a wide variety of stakeholders outside of your day-to-day colleagues, and assimilating what you hear, you can move from a “hazy” view of the future to a clear path to success!


Todd Thorsgaard

Reinventing ourselves

reinvent“Our duty is to wholly reinvent ourselves. We are America’s future—intellectually, socially, culturally.”  – Gordon Gee, former president of Ohio State University

As we grapple with how our colleges and universities can survive and thrive well into the future, we must in many ways reinvent ourselves and how we do business.  Conversations about how to do this well have been taking place on Minnesota State College and University campuses throughout our state over the summer and fall, as faculty, staff and administrators have been responding to a draft set of recommendations, entitled “Charting the Future.”

As I’ve been contemplating many of the recommendations in the report, it has been helpful to reread The Innovative University by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring.  Most of the 2011  text outlines the evolution of higher education in the U.S., and compares and contrasts some new models of educational delivery.  The authors acknowledge that all of higher education is in crisis, with rising tuition, out of control costs, and is facing disruptive technologies, such as for-profit competitors offering online degrees. They suggest that college and university leaders will have to innovate to the point of changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out in order to survive, since our traditional model of higher education in the U.S. is expensive and unsustainable for the long term. To get started with this process, Christensen and Eyring admonish institutions to focus on their unique contributions within the higher education landscape, by:

1)      Assessing Capabilities – determining what we’re best at and how well we meet the needs of students and other constituencies we serve.

2)      Making Choices – making hard choices about what the organization will and will not do and being clear about the trade-offs.  Asking:  what students will we serve? What will the academic offerings include? What are our unique areas of expertise?

To have these conversations about capabilities and making choices, Christianson and Erying wisely recommend that questions of people must be put ahead of questions of strategy. In fact, they state that faculty members hold the key to successful institutional change.  And the organization must demonstrate a high level of commitment towards their people to ensure individual commitment to the mission. They add, “Innovation may require them [faculty] to alter their activities, but no meaningful discussion of change can be undertaken without assurances that capable members who commit to innovating can remain with the community.”

As we move forward with “Charting the Future” discussions, it will be important to continue to engage not only our faculty leaders, but all stakeholders in the important and tough choices we need to make.

Anita Rios

Leadership and innovation

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We in higher ed don’t want to fall into the trap of doing the same thing over and over as the rest of the world changes around us!

Taking a look around the environment in higher education provides ample evidence that things are changing. As leaders who care about higher ed, we need to bring a full set of competencies to our work.  Todd mentioned last time that the final set of leadership competencies for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is focused on Leader as Innovator. (As a reminder, the first three were Leader of Self, Leader as Relationship Builder, and Leader as Manager.) So what makes innovation important enough to be included with this list?

What makes innovation so essential for leadership is that we can’t continue to do things in the same way, or even do things in a better, more effective version of the old way. We need to address what Harvard professor Ron Heifetz calls adaptive challenges.

Adaptive challenges require a response that’s different than normal managerial expertise. In a recent interview published by Creelman Research, Heifetz defines it this way:

The adaptive context is a situation that
demands a response outside your current
toolkit or repertoire; it consists of a gap
between aspirations and operational capacity
that cannot be closed by the expertise and
procedures currently in place.

Much of our work as leaders is about the other three competencies: being self-aware; nurturing the broad range of relationships that are necessary to be successful in higher ed; and wisely managing time, talent, and resources. These skills are critical. However, sometimes they need to be enhanced by an ability to adapt to new ways of doing business. Heifetz says that leaders facing adaptive challenges need to:

  • “Orchestrate” conflict in order to move things forward
  • Ask the tough questions and encourage discussion among all stakeholders
  • Take an experimental approach to problem solving that encourages creativity and learning from mistakes
  • Acknowledge that this is new territory – I don’t know the answer, and there isn’t an “expert” that can help us fix this quickly

This kind of innovative leadership – from all levels of the organization – will help us step out into the uncharted territory of higher education in the future.

Dee Anne Bonebright

Innovation and agility

In his latest article, Accelerate!,  published in the November Harvard Business Review, John Kotter suggests that the greatest challenge you face as a leader is staying competitive and successful in today’s changing environment. He describes it as “constant turbulence and disruption.” Think of the seismic changes occurring that you are grappling with right now:cheeta - accelerate-your-brand

  • dramatic shifts in who are students are and how they want to learn
  • major transformation in the economy and the jobs of the future
  • employer and governmental pressure to demonstrate results
  • technology advances, constant change and complexity
  • fundamental shift in funding and an ever increasing cost burden
  • competition from all sides

Kotter highlights the importance of “strategic agility” for today’s leaders to succeed. At MnSCU we describe it as Leader as Innovator, our final set of leadership competencies. They focus on the knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes needed to:

  • Articulate Your Vision and Mission
  • Build Organizational Capacity to Meet Future Challenges
  • Demonstrate Effective Decision-Making

Together they set the stage for anticipating the changes needed, making the key decisions, engaging your people, and building the capacity to deliver!

Todd Thorsgaard