Given the pace of change in higher education today, it should come as no surprise that colleges and universities are investing in research and development labs dedicated to academic and business-model innovation. Done right, these labs have the potential to transform institutional cultures. But investing in innovation as an organizational function won’t amount to much unless the leaders charged with driving innovation are able to thrive.
At a recent conference for academic-innovation leaders called Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm, a group of some 30 of us from a diverse range of institutions and backgrounds participated in a spirited discussion about the way we approach this work and what advice we would give to colleagues new to this role or interested in learning more about what we do and how we do it.
Inspired by Stephen Covey’s influential book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we wondered if there aren’t seven habits we possess—or should possess—that enable us to be successful. Here’s a snapshot of what we came up with:
Habit 1: Develop an Intrapreneurial Vision
Always start with vision: who are you and what are you trying to accomplish day-to-day? Remember, innovators are not market-minded opportunists. Our institutions have missions. We represent those missions and have skin in the game in driving those missions forward. And so, we push boundaries and take risks but never as solo performers. Rather, we act as trusted partners and peers to all we serve. We push boundaries but never outpace our colleagues. We are provocative but also constructive. We avoid creating crisis but have no qualms about finding opportunity in crisis—even if it means challenging the status quo.
Habit 2: Make it rain
At the same time, innovators are rainmakers. We perform magic. We scan the horizon for what’s next and are in constant pursuit of change. We value ideas for their viability and market potential—and are not afraid to seek out opportunity in new and unusual places. We are also financially literate. We balance budgets, monitor the bottom line, and steward our resources—all with an eye toward the future.
Habit 3: Practice exaptive building and transdisciplinary thinking
Innovators know that our work is evolutionary in nature and that we are evolutionary thinkers. We study individual and organizational behaviors in order to identify trends, gaps, and flaws again in the pursuit of change. At the same time, our impulses are not erratic. We can pivot or pause depending on the need, and work hard to embody both good instincts, but also understanding. We are transdisciplinary to the core. To create the conditions for new ideas and to build new things, we are necessarily “expert generalists.” We must be educators, administrators, storytellers and scientists, all at once.
Habit 4: Seek opportunities for inclusive convening leveraging emotional intelligence
Innovators are fueled by a diversity of ideas. We value competitive and often contradictory perspectives. We intentionally surround ourselves with people that challenge—not just complement—our efforts. Along those lines, we embody characteristics such as empathy, teamwork and collaboration. We are also not empire builders but rather diplomats, always happy to work behind the scenes (even with little recognition) provided the ideas themselves take root, change happens and a collective vision of the future rules the day.
Habit 5: Be a systems thinker
Innovators are programmers at heart. We seed ideas and help bring them to life, but never without an eye toward all that’s needed to take vision to execution. In everything we do, we take time to consider needs and requirements. We identify dependencies and assumptions. We practice mental models grounded in a pragmatic view of change.
Habit 6: Relentlessly pursue context
Innovators are research practitioners. We explore new ideas to apply them in real life. To do this, we read constantly and digest everything in order to practice sensemaking—helping to identity the signals in the noise. We also affirm the need for common sense, acknowledging that new ideas are rarely original and impulse is no match for experience. We value foresight and apply the models and methodologies needed to construct scenarios and artifacts that inform change.
Habit 7: Thrive in the gray
At the end of the day, innovators swim in nuance. We are comfortable with ambiguity—in fact, we thrive in it—and are adaptable to change. Easy answers are always greeted with suspicion and solutioning comes after experimentation and play.