Want to Cut Innovation Risk in Higher Ed? Follow These Indicators
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Want to Cut Innovation Risk in Higher Ed? Follow These Indicators

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“No one can see a bubble. That’s what makes it a bubble.” So says a disgruntled investor to hedge fund manager Michael Burry in the 2015 hit film “The Big Short,” skeptical of the quirky but brilliant Burry’s prediction that the U.S. subprime mortgage market is primed to implode. As we all know, the market did collapse. It turns out that Burry could see the bubble after all.

At University of Maryland University College (UMUC) we try to see the bubble, too—not a housing, bitcoin or tech stock bubble, but developments with the potential to derail our efforts to reinforce a culture of innovation on the campus. We look at key leading indicators that we have identified as helpful early signs of the types of outcomes likely to arise from the innovation work. In the world of economics, leading indicators are measurable economic factors that change before the economy begins to follow a particular trend or pattern. In the world of innovation projects, leading indicators are factors that change before the project begins to follow a particular trend or pattern. The innovation work at UMUC has been varied in its emphasis but has included initiatives to make use of Open Educational Resources, employ adaptive learning and aggressively focus on analytics to name a few.

In higher education, it’s paramount that we be able to recognize patterns and trends early in the life of a cutting-edge project. Innovation initiatives need time to mature from development through evaluation, the higher-ed culture generally eschews risk, and, in an era of competing agendas, tight budgets and impatient stakeholders, projects need to fail fast or pivot so that institutions can maximize their investment dollars.

Luckily, identifying leading indicators for success in higher-ed innovation is easier than finding unicorns—the next $1 billion startups—or understanding the nuances of digital currency. If you pay early attention to certain aspects of your innovation work, you can more clearly forecast results and keep the initiative steering toward success.

Here we highlight three important leading indicators that you should monitor. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive, but will be critical to the overall success of an innovation implementation. You may also find that you identify additional leading indicators that are unique based on your culture.

Leading Indicator No. 1: The Value Proposition

A successful innovation project gets its start by being seen as a prestigious initiative in which stakeholders from across an institution want to be included. Projects that engage partners who recognize that the status quo is unsatisfactory and who want to be engines of change are projects that are headed for success. A committed team of strong partners will find creative ways to address any unexpected hurdles that arise. Without that commitment, the initiative is likely to stagnate or fail.

Signs of a strong value proposition include active solicitation by institutional stakeholders who are excited by the opportunity to partner with those on campus involved in making the innovation initiative a reality. On the flip side, stakeholders who tend to stall when making decisions related to design and implementation shows indicator weakness. These partners view their involvement as forced by external agents. They haven’t bought into the need for change and only see this initiative as more work with little to no gain.

Evaluating the value proposition leading indicator early in your innovation project is critical. Ignoring signs of weakly committed partners can snowball into a larger problem, leading to poor implementation, reduced ability to judge outcomes and a missed opportunity to have the greatest possible impact. Pivoting away from a weak value proposition early will get the innovation initiative back on track and headed for success.

Leading Indicator No. 2: The Vendor Relationship

The nature of your relationship with any vendor or external partner involved in your innovation initiative also is a key leading indicator of the initiative’s success. Signs of a strong vendor relationship include timely attention to issues as they arise, regular communication and a clear understanding of both expectations and known constraints. Indications of a weak vendor relationship can be measured in many ways, but a few key considerations for us have been a growing backlog of unresolved technical issues, a false understanding of product capabilities in support of the initiative, and unclear communication, all of which can, in turn, delay the implementation schedule.

Leading Indicator No. 3: Culture and Support of Innovation

The types of stakeholders you need working on innovations such as adaptive learning will be varied. You will want to have stakeholders from all areas of campus. Design thinking is built on the need for multiple stakeholders to handle wicked problems. Looking for a new personalized learning approach from multiple angles has allowed us to create multiple prototypes to inform our decision-making. There is no silver bullet in this work, and having iterations and insights informed by various areas of expertise makes the initiative more robust. We have found that creating, from the onset, a cross-functional innovation team that includes subject matter experts, instructional designers, project managers, IT representatives, and strategic academic leadership has increased our ability to pilot a new innovation project rapidly and successfully.

A commitment by all parties involved in an initiative—both inside and outside of your institution—leads to implementation success.

Cristi Ford is associate vice provost and Sharon Goodall is director of Innovations in Learning Design & Solutions at University of Maryland University College.

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