Barriers to Innovation?

I hear a lot about innovation in my work with colleges and systems of higher education. Ambitions to innovate run high in many pockets of organizations. Yes, while many individuals inside higher education organizations see innovation as a desirable, most see it as out of reach or at least difficult to implement in their current environment. Why?

First, many believe that innovation occurs only in “special” places and then only among “select individuals.” This belief holds that the universe aligns sporadically to produce innovation and it happens only in far, far away places. An organization’s low expectations for what might be accomplished for itself leads to putting other places on a pedestal. I’m not always sure that institutions with a reputation for being first are always worthy of worship, but that’s a topic for later.

Second is the belief that the cost to innovate is more than its return. Better–this meme holds–to keep doing what’s “worked in the past.” Tried and true gets more energy especially when college finances are stretched. Risk aversion beats creativity every time. In the case of student success, most colleges and systems haven’t made the commitment to trying new formats and delivery options to improve achievement. Worse, when these interventions are found to work, few colleges and systems are sufficiently courageous to re-investing the increased revenue they earn to more innovation, preferring instead to throw their return in the same, communal pot.

Third, the belief that the tools required innovate don’t exist in the current workspace sometimes predominates. A limited view, certainly, that doesn’t speak confidently about the capability of otherwise very smart people. In reality, all colleges and systems are only several steps away from innovation. Progress lies in repurposing tools already on hand. This is like waiting for new software or hardware to be installed before tackling fundamental issues. Again, another story for another blog post someday, but you’ll get my drift.

What’s holding back innovation in your college or system?

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