When Innovation is More Than a Buzz Word

Diverse people in a meeting

Here’s how department chairs, deans, and unit directors can build and support the innovations that will help their institution thrive in the years to come.

On many campuses you will find creative faculty, students, staff, and senior leaders who start programs that grow and eventually become transformative for the institution. These ventures build the school’s reputation, improve services to students and faculty, strengthen the curriculum and co-curriculum, enhance research, and improve community service. Often, they also generate major revenue streams. They make the institution more competitive and attractive in every sense. Yet the internal entrepreneurs (I call them intrapreneurs) who deliver these benefits, lack the support they need to bring their innovative ventures to maturity in a timely way.

What would it look like if there were a pipeline of support for such ventures and the intrapreneurs who create and guide them at your institution? What if your college or university leaders had an active process for identifying such promising intrapreneurs, testing their ideas, and helping them with both the skills and resources needed for their ventures to mature? What would it look like if support for such efforts wasn’t haphazard and ad hoc, but structured and planned?

To visualize what this might mean, let’s take just one example of what such a pipeline for innovation might look like. This example is in the realm of teaching and curriculum improvement, but we could just as easily give examples for research, public service, student life, or improving campus operations and facilities.

It is a composite of real cases from the institutions of higher education presented in the book, The phrases and sentences in italics describe the supports that are in place at each stage of venture development. Taken together, they are a pipeline for innovation.

The Pipeline for Innovation: An Example

Segment 1: From idea to pilot

A faculty member in the sciences has an idea to help undergraduates get involved in research and problem-solving earlier in their academic careers. She is really passionate about this. She says, “If we taught baseball like we teach science, students would not play a game until graduate school.” A sympathetic department chair refers her to a course the Provosts’ Office runs in how to turn ideas into projects. The faculty member enrolls in the course and designs a pilot program (based on a survey of promising similar initiatives at other schools) for a summer school course she is teaching. The course is very successful. With help from a staff member from the Office of Teaching and Learning, she participates in a course for faculty innovators and creates a strategic plan to grow her effort.

Segment 2: From pilot to program

The first step of the strategic plan was to sell the idea to faculty members who might be sympathetic. An associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, part of whose job is to foster new ventures, provides her department with funds to support a course buy-out so she can do the proselytizing and recruiting necessary to get other faculty involved. During the next semester, she recruits a group of faculty colleagues in different disciplines interested willing to try out her idea, and the Development Office connects her to an interested foundation.

Segment 3: Growing the program

The foundation makes some additional funds available to help faculty try out the idea of undergraduate research and to pay some teaching assistants to help professors who sign on. Because students get to work on real research projects and are solving real problems it is a big hit and demand increases. The faculty member is given a one course reduction for the next year to continue work on this project which now has a name, and she is given the title of “coordinator”. She is invited to participate in a support group of fellow innovators from across the institution. In this group they develop their ideas and to brainstorm how to overcome obstacles along the way.

Segment 4: The institution embraces the innovation

Encouraged by the growing success the program shows, the increasing demand from students, faculty excitement, and alumni and parent recognition, the College of Arts and Sciences sets up an Office of Undergraduate Research to really boost this effort. The faculty member who developed the idea, now tenured, becomes an Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Discovery learning. An interested donor solicited by the College Development officer, funds four term professorships for faculty advisors, one in each division of the College (i.e., Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences).

Segment 5 of the Pipeline: From innovation to impact

In a few years hundreds of students at the institution are affected and the school uses this program in its promotional materials to recruit the best students. The “Program on Undergraduate Research and Problem-Solving” becomes a selling point for the institution. Students find that their college experience, now enhanced, better prepares them for the workplace and graduate study. An alumni donor who has just hit it big in the tech world, provides a $25,000,000 endowment to assure that every student can take advantage of this opportunity. This program now distinguishes the school from its closest peers.

This model of progressive assistance in five stages can be adapted to many different types of institutions and to many types of innovations. This example included the following elements of what might be part of an innovation pipeline: a course on designing new ventures, a program for those who actually are creating pilot programs, coaching, training, and support groups for intrapreneurs, released time, start-up funds, continuing support, formal adoption as part of the institution, and connecting to outside donors for major continuing support. This is not an exhaustive list of possible supports for innovation but it does illustrate the continuity of the pipeline.

The articulation of this model in my book Creating a Pipeline for Innovation Within Your College or University is based on my twenty years of experience in working with campus innovators, on cases from several dozen innovative institutions, and from interviews with some of the country’s most innovative senior higher ed leaders.

The model is also informed by my decades of study of change leadership and by my consulting career with leaders not only in higher education, but also across a wide spectrum of government, non-profit, and commercial enterprises.

How could something like this be structured and implemented at your college or university? I invite you to learn about this model more deeply, study each of the segments of the pipeline, and explore real-world examples of how it can work, in Creating a Pipeline for Innovation Within Your College or University.