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​Inside the Incubators: The Anatomy of a University Innovation Team

By Allison Dulin Salisbury     Oct 11, 2017

More than ever universities today are carving out fresh ways to bypass bureaucracy and drive innovation in higher education—and it’s working.

Colleges are pioneering novel forms of credentialing and breakthrough education technologies for non-traditional learners around the globe. They are experimenting with more intensive ways to partner with the K-12 system and with employers, and they are creating new lines of revenue and educational business models.

To get there, institutions of all shapes and sizes are creating academic R&D labs, idea incubators and university skunkworks: flexible, internal teams that generate new ideas, prototype solutions and find partners to help launch them at scale. The anatomy of an innovation team like this varies in size, shape and organizational design. But what’s important is that a team has the right alignment of roles and goals, from senior leaders to innovation champions to the “intrapreneurs” who drive new initiatives.

Aligning goals and roles

For any university innovation team, form is dependent on function, and function varies widely. The University of Michigan's Office of Academic Innovation, for example, has a team of 42 full-time dedicated people tasked with “redefining public residential education at a 21st century research university.” Run by James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation, the team is structured around functional “labs” such as the Digital Innovation Greenhouse.

In Washington D.C., Georgetown’s Designing the Future(s) Initiative focuses on curricular innovation centered on educating the “whole person” and is staffed by a healthy combination of over a dozen staff, faculty and, notably, students. This team ramped up four years ago under the leadership of Randy Bass, vice provost for education, in an effort to imagine what Georgetown might look like five, 10 and 15 years from now.

Dean for Educational Initiatives Philip Regier leads Arizona State’s EdPLus program, which is designed to create “education at scale and speed for everyone, everywhere.” EdPlus evolved out of the university's online initiatives three years ago and today employs 160 people. Both Michigan and Georgetown’s teams report to the provost, while EdPLus reports into an internal operating board chaired by the university’s President Michael Crow.

These examples represent universities that have committed substantial resources to reimagining their future. Not all universities need a dedicated team of this size—but they do need a team with the right alignment of goals and roles. From my work supporting the formation of an innovation unit at Davidson College, and from observing and advising dozens of innovation teams across many universities, I’ve learned there are three roles that make up a “minimum viable” innovation team:

The “Leader”

The genesis story of most innovation teams involves a president and/or provost (ideally “and”) developing a deep sense of urgency to address the toughest problems facing the university’s future. From experience, they know that throwing more committees against the problems won’t result in the transformation needed, so they assign centralized people to the task. And while many universities want innovation initiatives to be sourced in a grassroots way, the grassroots approach still requires a senior player to spearhead the process.

Effective innovation leaders inspire their community to action. They are storytellers whose primary task is to shape the narrative around why their university needs to change and imbue a sense of shared mission for the work ahead. They help foster a culture that puts the needs of learners at the center of the innovation agenda. Innovation leaders recognize when the long decision-making cycles endemic to university governance are useful, and create space for more agile decision-making when they’re not.

In short, leaders leverage their social capital—and actual capital—to create room for experimentation to thrive, while ensuring that experimentation is in service of the most pressing problems facing their university and its constituents. Through their work as storytellers, they enable the “champion” to amplify the message and motivation behind the innovation agenda, and to translate that message into a portfolio of initiatives.

The “Champion”

Champions should report directly to a president or provost and are often bestowed with glitzy titles like Chief Innovation Officer or Vice Provost for Innovation & Education. They are seasoned—and senior—participants in university life and culture. As pros in navigating institutional process and politics, they align the resources and partners necessary for new initiatives to take root and grow.

A champion’s primary charge is building buy-in and momentum for the innovation agenda. They do this by speaking tirelessly about the “why” behind institutional innovation efforts at alumni events and conferences, in countless committee meetings, and during behind-the-scenes coffee klatsches with department chairs and faculty. I’ve often heard champions describe their job as 90 percent convincing people there is reason and urgency for the institution to innovate, and 10 percent actually building things.

Through this work as consensus and trust builders, champions create hard-earned space for the “founder” to thrive.

The “Founder”

Founders, or a collection of founders, often report to the champion but also can comprise a distributed team of people who lead specific initiatives. They rely on the champion to do the political “block-tackling” needed to get initiatives approved, align the necessary partners and resources, and alleviate fearful responses to the work.

Because their work can be threatening to the status quo, founders may not be universally liked on campus. Culturally, they can be the black sheep. An effective founder is an impatient optimist, a tinker, a maker, and an entrepreneur. Founders have a bias toward action, wanting to try ten things to find one that works, to fail fast in order to learn. They are constantly harvesting new ideas from unexpected places and bringing them back to campus. They frustrate quickly at bureaucracy and slow processes.

It probably comes as no surprise that universities have a hard time identifying, recruiting and keeping talented founders. Some campuses succeed in empowering students, recent grads, faculty and instructional designers as founders. Others hire talent from edtech companies or elsewhere in the private sector.

There is no “I” in team

The trick is for the champion to empower the founder, and ensure that the founder:

  • Stays focused on solving the problems that matter most
  • Cultivates a culture of experimentation, with rapid-cycle feedback loops for evaluating what is working (and what is not)
  • Goes “out and about” in the world gathering ideas from other universities, organizations and companies
  • Is sheltered from the time and headache of navigating bureaucracy

One final note of caution: the most common mistake universities make is conflating the role of champion and founder. Universities unfairly ask their consensus builder and master of institutional bureaucracy to also be the originator of breakthrough ideas. They ask their trust builder to also be their black sheep. But having one person do it all often doesn’t work out well.

But if universities get it right—by aligning the roles and goals of the leader, the champion and the founder—any institution has a good shot at facilitating transformational change.

Allison Dulin Salisbury (@amdulin) is President of Entangled Studios.

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