7 Myths that Limit Innovation in Higher Ed


This article continues a series focused on Creating an Innovative Institutional Mindset. The previous articles in this series are:

  1. The 10 Barriers to Innovation in Higher Education
  2. 7 Ways Academic Leaders Can Cultivate Creativity

Innovation is all the buzz these days in higher education circles, and it is no wonder.  Many mainstream media observers have noted that higher education is now ground zero for disruption due largely to what they believe is a broken business model. The significant challenges facing colleges and universities were illuminated by Moody’s December 2017 decision to downgrade its outlook for the US higher education sector to negative due to softened revenue growth prospects. Some have gone so far to suggest that we are living through an era of total disruption to the age-old model of higher education and that “reality” as we now know it will completely change. According to these same experts, the institutions that are able to reinvent themselves, to create and embrace change, will have the best odds for survival and resiliency.

And yet, despite the urgency for change, many institutions find it difficult to innovate. I discussed some of the barriers to innovation here. Besides the barriers listed in that article, though, one of the major roadblocks in the way of our success is that over time, institutional leaders have accepted a number of harmful myths about innovation as truths. These myths limit our willingness to take risks and our ability to pilot and scale up new initiatives. Here is my top seven list of these common myths — along with some thoughts about how to avoid getting trapped in them.

Myth #1: Innovation is too difficult.

Leaders sometime hesitate to initiate innovation in part because they think it will be too hard or that it will require bringing in an ‘expert’ who is schooled in how to think and act innovatively.  A variation of this myth is the belief that innovation costs too much. A provost friend of mine at another institution recently told me that she was holding back from initiating a curricular change effort for precisely this reason—it would be ‘too difficult’ to get her faculty on board and if she did get them on board they would most likely come up with ideas her institution cannot afford to implement. ‘So why bother?’ she concluded.

However, the science of innovation suggests that many of us tend to overthink innovation on the front end, talking ourselves out of taking even those less risky, smaller steps forward which over time can set the stage for positive change. What to do the next time you are tempted to put something in your ‘too-hard’ basket?  Shift your focus from thinking about innovation as a singular event with groundbreaking outcomes to building a climate that teaches, rewards and incentivizes innovative thinking.

In other words, rather than focusing on some big blitz presidential driven ‘innovation initiative’ that immediately puts people on edge and leaves them feeling defensive, start instead by nurturing a climate where faculty and staff are enabled to leverage their existing natural curiosity on a daily basis, and where institutional structure and process allows for and welcomes wide sharing and cross-pollination of ideas from every corner of the campus. St. Olaf College was on the forefront in this regard with its launch nearly 20 years ago of the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts, a dedicated campus resource for facilitating faculty conversation around innovative practice in teaching and learning.

Myth #2: Innovation “just happens.”

People love to describe a kind of “eureka” experience when explaining the origin of a new, great idea; and yet, most innovations incubate slowly, sometimes over many years and decades. According to author Steve Johnson, many of the great innovations in history did not come about as a lightning bolt but instead were the result of years’ worth of small, incremental changes, a lot of trial and error, and repurposing of old ideas. For example, when Tim Berners-Lee first created the WWW as a tool for scholars, he never imagined that it would evolve over time into a network central to the development of the Information Age, used by billions of people to interact on the Internet.

At my own institution, The American Women’s College—an innovative fully online educational program that is transforming the way adult women learn—emerged from a decade-old campus-based program serving adult women. Most institutions have existing offerings that can be repurposed or reimagined to serve a new market of learners. 

The challenge is to teach yourself how to look at something very familiar that exists in one form and see new possibilities—new markets. For example:

  • What campus based programs might have a broader market if delivered online?
  • Or what if you were to adapt your academic calendar to allow students more problem-based or experiential learning experiences?

Recently, North Park University in Chicago leveraged its location in one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the nation—60625—to create a new program: Catalyst 606__.  Through this program, which happens every Wednesday afternoon during the academic year, students and faculty are immersed in real world learning that uses the city of Chicago and its vast resources as an extension of the North Park classroom. The early response from prospective students has been overwhelmingly positive.

Myth #3: Innovation happens in a vacuum.

When institutions embark on innovative initiatives, the natural tendency is to separate the individuals doing the innovative work in order to give them space and room for the ideas to blossom, as well as to protect them from institutional constraints. And indeed, this can be an important condition for getting a new endeavor successfully launched. There is also risk, however, in isolating this innovation from the rest of the institution to the point that there is minimal engagement between the two.

As Johnson writes, worthwhile innovation initiatives are most likely to succeed over time when they can fully leverage existing organizational assets and capabilities. Just as important is the opportunity for ideas to connect with each other. It is no coincidence that great cultural innovations emerged from the Parisian café culture of the 1920s, where creatives from diverse backgrounds and experiences met in the same space for hours on end. According to those who write on this topic, a key to innovation on an organizational level is the presence of a network that broadly facilitates shared interactions that allow ideas to diffuse, circulate and combine with other ideas. Institutions that are replacing the traditional academic departmental structure with interdisciplinary clusters that bring faculty and students together across diverse disciplines are creating just such a space on their campuses for new ideas and ways of thinking to emerge.

To what extent are you creating space and opportunity for faculty and staff to mix it up, especially around critical campus priorities? The next time you launch a new initiative, be sure to consider the composition of your group. Aim for a wide mix in terms of demographics such as gender, age, and ethnicity, as well as experience and background. Some of the best new process ideas on our campus have come not from those who were “in the weeds” with deep knowledge and familiarity, but instead from those who were able to look at the process from an entirely different perspective and with new eyes. So make sure the group driving your effort is diverse.

Myth #4: Innovation is something only creative geniuses do.

There is a tendency to idealize innovation — to think of individuals like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie as different from the rest of us, as having some kind of genius that enables them to create. In truth, each of us is born with innate creative instincts. If you watch children at play, you will see them inventing dozens of things within a short time span. However, by the time we grow to adulthood, our innate creative instincts have been tamed by the conventions of conformity. Similarly, in academic organizations, good ideas are often immediately killed in the interest of the intellect and the analytical process.

In his book How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery, Kevin Ashton tells story after story of individuals who worked tirelessly to create something new, often failing miserably until something took hold. For instance, James Dyson, the inventor of a cyclonic vacuum cleaner, made 5,126 prototypes before hitting on the successful design. Or consider the back story of how the structure of DNA was discovered due in large part to a series of pioneering women who persisted in their field despite barriers of discrimination. In studying these examples and drawing from his own life experience (which includes coming up with the now-pervasive term “the internet of things”), Ashton concludes that people who are presumed to be “genius” innovators most often earned their success through mundane problem-solving methods—hard work and trial and error.

What this means is this: Any one of us and every one of us has the potential to innovate. To whatever extent we can open up pathways on our campuses that encourage everyone’s access to creativity within a climate that tolerates experimentation, the potential for innovation might just be limitless.

Myth #5: Innovation is top-down.

A similarly defeating myth is the notion that innovation only happens when led by a dynamic, key leader who personally drives new idea creation. While there are certainly notable stories about turnaround leaders who transformed their institutions through the sheer force of their will and perseverance, sustainable innovation is much more likely in today’s environment when leaders take a systematic approach to creating and nurturing an innovative climate from the ground up. The higher education context is simply too dynamic and too fluid for most leaders to respond quickly enough as solo innovators.

In contrast to top-down innovation, which is typically fueled by a strong vision and driven by a small team of senior leaders, bottom-up innovation is fueled by the creativity of many, particularly those who are closest to the mission on a daily basis. The Khan Academy is an example of bottom-up innovation in practice. Through the creation and dissemination of more than 3,000, 10-minute free instructional videos on just about any subject, the Khan Academy has turned education on its head, and has ignited the flipped education approach, where instructors can utilize the video resources for at-home student learning while reserving precious in-class time for problem-based learning. This flexible model makes much more efficient and effective use of the instructor’s resources and also allows for user feedback, so that lessons are continually refined and improved to better serve those most directly impacted.

According to the research, leaders who excel at supporting bottom-up innovation exhibit a unique set of practices, including “behaving like a shepherd and leading from the back” in addition to modeling “a balance between creativity and discipline and between patience and a sense of urgency.”

Myth #6: You can never have too many good ideas.

How many of us have participated in brainstorming sessions that went nowhere? We tend to believe that the more ideas we generate, the more likely we will uncover that one, really good idea.

Yet coming up with ideas is rarely the issue for most institutions. The challenge comes in determining which ideas are worth our precious time and limited resources to pursue. Psychologist Keith Sawyer suggests that to be optimally effective, idea generation needs to sit in the middle of an eight-stage process — one that includes “asking the right question, becoming an expert, practicing mindfulness, taking time off from a problem so your subconscious can incubate, generating lots of ideas (this is the brainstorming part), fusing ideas, choosing the best ones and finally, making something out of your great ideas.” At a minimum, leaders need to keep their mission and strategic priorities front and center as they are evaluating new ideas. Regardless of where it comes from, a cool idea should never be added to someone’s “to-do” list until someone can clearly articulate how it relates to the mission and how it actually addresses a pressing issue that your institution is dealing with.

It is also important to consider how you will measure the impact of any idea you are considering. For instance, how might this idea add value for the student experience, and how will you know when you have been successful? If the idea does not lend itself to measurement, that may be an indication that it is not worth your time.

Myth #7: Innovation is always good.

The other downside to idealizing innovation for its own sake is the belief that innovation always produces good outcomes. Really? Innovation is always good? How about the New Coke debacle? Or how might we feel about an innovation that threatens to end our profession? What impact might today’s great idea have many years into the future?

Innovation is change. And with change, there are always winners and losers. If we are honest with ourselves, no one really likes to be on the receiving end of change. Neuroscientists tell us that uncertainty about the future produces a strong ‘alert’ reaction in our brains which diminishes our ability to focus.  In brief, our brains do not like uncertainty and we try to avoid it at all costs.

At the same time, many inventions were created with the best intentions only to lead later to dangerous consequences. For example, tobacco was first used in around first century BC by the Maya people of Central America as a helpful tool in sacred and religious rituals. Likewise, I imagine that Karl Benz and Henry Ford never dreamed that automobiles would one day kill 40k people annually in the U.S.

Leaders should never lose site of the human side of innovation and the fact that any successful idea has many potential outcomes that are impossible to predict and difficult to measure. Idealizing innovation and creativity — without planfulness, intentionality, and strategic direction to guide us in which innovations are worthy of our investment and effort — can be as harmful as risk aversion and remaining bound by the way we have always done things.

What’s next

As I discussed in my previous article, it is possible to jump start your institution’s innovation engine by adopting practices and nurturing habits and environments that are conducive for creative behavior.  In future articles in this series, I will share more tools and strategies for:

  • Creating space and opportunity for innovation to flourish
  • HR practices that kill innovation
  • Breaking down the bureaucracy that limits creative thinking and innovation