Tag Archives: innovation

“Cross over” to increase innovation

different5Part of the MnSCU competency on valuing diversity states that leaders should “actively seek out and invite alternative viewpoints in planning, discussions, and decision making.” I recently saw an article that reminded me that this is not only the right thing to do, but it also is a business necessity.

GE’s Beth Comstock recently wrote a blog post about the value of “crossing over” to new disciplines in order to increase innovation and creativity. Crossing over occurs when ideas or knowledge from one field is used in a completely different field. Some of her examples included:

  • NASA didn’t purchase the Apollo space suits from standard aerospace contractors. Instead, they worked with Playtex, which had a strong knowledge base in designing and constructing garments contoured to fit the human body.
  • The initial idea for pacemakers rose from a chance lunch meeting between two cardiologists and an engineering student.
  • In less than a month, players of the video game Foldit, which simulates protein folding, were able to answer questions about the molecular structure of HIV/AIDS that medical researchers had been working on for a decade.
  • Oil companies are using medical ultrasound technology to monitor pipelines for leaks, and airlines use it to monitor jet engine parts for metal fatigue.

Comstock recommends building intentional opportunities for conversation among different parts of an organization. She also provided a personal challenge: read a magazine or journal from a field you don’t know and try to connect the dots to something you are working on.

In my own work, I’ve gained a great deal of practical knowledge by studying research that applies principles of neuroscience to people’s behavior in the workplace. By learning more about how our brains generate predictable responses to change and stress, we can create appropriate leadership strategies.

How could “crossing over” help in your work?

Dee Anne Bonebright

The never ending debate?

Best of 2015, first published on March 4, 2015
As the title suggests this dilemma cannot be vanquished but only revisited and managed – not solved!
–Todd Thorsgaard

disagreeEver since we could argue it seems as if people have been debating the merits of working for the common good or working for individual success and survival. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, wrote in 1651 that we needed government to enforce behaviors that support the common good. The economist Adam Smith argued in 1776 that we must establish a free economic market to ensure that the common good wins. Otherwise the power of individual success will win.

The Selfish GeneI first got involved in this debate as a behavioral biology student in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published one of my favorite books, The Selfish Gene. At the time it was described as “the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.” Dawkins continued the scientific debate that is occurring today: is it better to act for the common good or is it better to act for the good of the individual?

While this debate has fueled many wonderful conversations and arguments on college campuses, during long car trips, or at the local bar it highlights a dilemma that all leaders face. Do I focus on the success of my team and our services or do I focus on the success of the larger organization, even if it hurts my team or my success?

What if there isn’t a “right” answer and instead it is actually a polarity that you can leverage? In her 2014 post, Leveraging polarities,  Anita introduced the concept of polarity thinking as a tool for leaders to use when facing these types of ongoing dilemmas. A recent article from the Polarity Partnership Group highlights the need to recognize the benefits of supporting the common good AND supporting your team while also acknowledging and acting on the downside of the common good AND the downside of team-focused success.

Over the next month we will be sharing tips and tools you can use to reap the benefits of focusing on the common good in your organization. Yet, in today’s complex environment we must also follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice and “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t a debate between the common good and the good of your team, it is a polarity of the common good and the good of your team.

Todd Thorsgaard

The view from the balcony

overcome-fear-of-heightsThe changes that are required for our organizations to succeed and thrive will disturb our comfortable view of work. Successful leaders must not only manage that feeling of disequilibrium, but make it productive. Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linksy label this Adaptive Leadership.

Adaptive leaders tackle the real issues we all face, while pushing people to look at the world differently. I just experienced a powerful example of adaptive leadership when Steven Rosenstone, the chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, challenged a group of leaders to “…ask ourselves hard questions: Can we really succeed doing things the way we are now, and what do I need to do differently?” That was a scary question but it made me, and all of us, closely examine what is important to us and to our students! And what are we willing to do about it? Will we step into the disequilibrium of real change and make a difference?

Heifetz highlights that leaders must be able to manage their own reactions and those of their team during these unsettled times. A metaphor that he uses is to “get off the swirl of the dance floor and get onto the balcony.” Intentionally stepping back from the chaos of a situation and observing it from a distance can help leaders see patterns, underlying issues, connections, and unexpected opportunities. The view from the balcony also allows leaders to recognize their own fears and beliefs about the situation and not allow them to cloud their interpretation of the events.

Adaptive leadership is all about connecting first with your own values, beliefs and fears and then connecting with the values, beliefs and fears of your people while asking them to take on the tough challenges we face in making a real difference. That is deeply personal work.

Todd Thorsgaard



A culture of collaboration

collaboration_TalentCove“Shared space — whether physical, virtual or digital — is where collaborators agree to jointly create, manipulate, iterate, capture and critique…. Shared space is the essential means, medium, and mechanism that makes collaboration possible. No shared space? No real collaboration.” – Michael Schrage

Schrage is the author of Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. Written in 1990, it is an early work on the value of collaborations. The quote is from a recent blog he posted on Harvard Business Review highlighting his work the past 25 years on collaboration. The big change since he published his book focuses on the importance of creating a culture that supports collaboration for groups, not just collaborations between two individuals. Or as he states, creating “a value and behavioral norm” that makes “collaboration simpler, more accessible, more effective, and more satisfying” for large numbers of people working in organizations.

The System Incentives and Rewards (SIR) team at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is taking on the challenge of building a culture of collaboration. One of their ideas is to work with our campuses to create “innovation labs” that will have space for collaborative work or “shared space” as Schrage described.

The SIR team’s overall goal is to find ways to redesign our financial and administrative models to reward collaboration. They have identified four important concepts that will make collaboration the core of how we provide higher education that drives student success.

  1. Redesign our financial model to reward collaboration
  2. Encourage entrepreneurial opportunities
  3. Support and encourage multi-institutional coordination
  4. Design a human resources model that incents and rewards collaboration

(For more information on the work of the System Incentive and Reward team visit their page at Charting the Future.)

While it can take a long time to build systems and spaces that incent and reward collaboration in a large organization, the SIR’s team has made a strong start. I am excited to be working in an organization that is taking this type of action. As Charles Darwin said, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too), those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

Todd Thorsgaard

Snow storms, bumper cars and highly effective teams?

jeopardyAnd the answer is?? Planned accidental collisions!

We had a freezing rain and snow “event” yesterday and cars were slipping and sliding into each other by the hundreds. Not a pretty sight but actually a great metaphor for building effective teams. In fact both urban planners and highly successful leaders have been promoting the idea that density and unplanned interactions, or “collisions” can spark creativity and help build an engaged culture at work.

The main idea is that “running” into other people, sharing ideas, asking questions, and listening to what they are working on stimulates our brains and opens us up to more possibilities.

Leaders can make changes in the physical work space and the processes a team uses to facilitate these creative accidental collisions. The department I work in has created an informal work space. Several times while I was using it a colleague has ask me what I was working on and then shared some ideas I had not thought of.

Other ideas you can try to foster “accidental collisions” include:

  • scheduling work and share times where people talk about their projects and others are encouraged to share ideas
  • rotating project team members on a regular basis
  • encouraging people to participate in cross-functional projects
  • inviting representatives from other departments to participate on project teams
  • support participation in professional organizations and interest groups

Creating safe opportunities for people and ideas to collide will help your team succeed over the long run, and they will have more fun!  bumper cars

Todd Thorsgaard

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

Summertime and the living is easy……

Do you know the next line? If so leave a comment and also share what you are doing to enjoy your summer.

Similar to many of my favorite podcasts, I am offering a “best-of” summer repeat post today. First a quick set-up for you.

In Anita’s last post she highlighted the importance of Building a Change Engine to ensure you have the capacity for a successful change. Improving decision-making capabilities is a crucial aspect of the change engine structure.  The quality of decisions during all phases of change impacts the success of any change initiative.

At MnSCU we are focused on providing an opportunity for all Minnesotans to create a better future for themselves, for their families, and for their communities through our Charting the Future work. Leaders, faculty, staff, implementation team members, and stakeholders will all need to make many on-going decisions during the next few years. As in any organization working on transformational change, we will be searching for new ideas, exploring alternatives and examining current policies, procedures and processes and deciding what is the best mix for a successful future. Change demands making hard choices among many options.

Last December I wrote about a conversation McKinsey & Company had with Chip Heath that focused on how to increase the effectiveness of decision-making in organizations and individuals and make better decisions. Here is a link to that blog which includes some practical ideas for developing decision-making capacity in your organization – It’s a WRAP!

I hope you find this “repeat” blog valuable. In case you couldn’t answer my opening question, here is a hint. fish-graphics-catfish-931568

We would love to hear what you are doing to enjoy your summer.

Todd Thorsgaard

Code blue – save that change!

aedEach morning I notice the AED defibrillator when I exit the stairwell on my way to my office. If I am running late I may be slightly out of breath from running up the stairs but I have never needed the defibrillator, thank goodness! Yet, I am glad that the leaders in our organization don’t just talk about healthy employees but take accountability and are committed to the health of their people. They purchased and put AED devices on each floor and provided training on how to use them. I am trained and it is a good feeling to know that we have resources available and I know what to do in the event of a health emergency.

Change leaders have a similar responsibility to align their own behaviors and take accountability for their role in building accountability for change in the overall institution. The Implementation Institute uses the acronym CPR to help leaders build accountability for actual behavior change and execution in change initiatives.

C – Communicate: Clearly define, articulate and share the specific behaviors, performance and actions that are a part of the change.

P – Practice: Clearly determine what behaviors you need to personally demonstrate to show your commitment to the change. “Practice what you preach”

R– Reinforce: Create an infrastructure, policies and practices that reinforce the desired behaviors, successful and initially unsuccessful attempts at the new behaviors, and other activities that support the change.

Leaders who understand the importance of change CPR and actively communicate, practice and reinforce the desired behaviors necessary for a change to succeed will build accountability and commitment through their higher education institutions or any type of organization.

Todd Thorsgaard

Avoid a dead end strategy!

Bilingual-Caution-Dead-End-Sign-K-9245Do you remember the last time you and your family or friends drove to a city you had not visited before? You were probably excited to find new adventures or at least your hotel.  What if every street you turned down was a dead end? No way to get to your hotel, no new sites, no museums, no shops and no new adventures. Sounds frustrating, demoralizing and even likely to cause tension and conflict!

The same thing can happen when we use strategies that send our change efforts down dead end roads. Yet we often do this as leaders without being aware of it. One common strategy tool is SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).  A study by Harold E. Klein and Mark D’ Esposito published in 2008 suggests that SWOT analysis and planning actually brings change to a screeching halt at “mental dead ends.” The creativity and complexity involved in successful change requires a different type of strategy and thinking than SWOT analyses create. Their work, and other research in neurocognition and neuroleadership, indicates that we need to use strategy tools that evoke richer mental imagery, more expansive thinking, and fewer either-or choices than a traditional SWOT activity.

Last October Anita shared a strategy tool in her post, Let your vision SOAR, that we use in our work. The open-ended questions used in creating strategy with SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results) engage people and help them create rich mental images of future opportunities, aspirations and results. Using SOAR to develop your change strategy leverages how our brains actually work and can help you avoid dead ends in your change efforts.

Todd Thorsgaard



What does change look like to you?

If you ask 10 people to describe change I am confident you will get at least 20 different answers, depending on the day or even the last 10 minutes.White-Water-Rafting-Canada1                   For some it is an exciting ride into the future. Full of energy and adventure!

For others it is a scary experience they weren’t expecting and have no control over.

wind-bournemouth_1210640iOr it can be a peaceful period of growth and fulfillment.


As a leader I imagine you have experienced change that felt like each of these and many more. The same goes for each person on your team and in your organization. Yet you are being asked to lead changes and move your people and institutions forward at a faster and faster pace.

While we can’t promise a smooth landing, or an adventure with no water in your face, Anita, Dee Anne and I are looking forward to exploring a path that can help you lead and manage change successfully. FINAL Change Image_Page_1You can click on the image for our picture of successful change.

Over the next 11 months we will share ideas, tips, resources and open up a dialogue with you focusing on the following key elements of leading change:

  1. Assess Current State
  2. Articulate Vision for Future State
  3. Set Strategy and Goals
  4. Engage Stakeholders
  5. Build Accountability and Commitment
  6. Develop Capacity
  7. Take Action
  8. Reinforce the New Normal
  9. Evaluate Results

Change is ahead, are you ready to lead down the path?

Todd Thorsgaard