In my last 2 posts ( 7 Rules About Innovation ; First Steps in Creating a Culture of Innovation;   I said I’d get to the topic of removing barriers to innovation in an institution. I’m a bit academic about this topic, since I feel like this stage requires some sort of framework that gives your actions some method to the madness.  This is also one area where I think senior leadership would do well to be a bit more academic outside of standard leadership literature and practices.  But I digress…

Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory is probably the most well known and cited tome on innovation, and I’ve found that senior admin really grasp this idea of diffusion and innovation, so it’s a good one to have in your back pocket. But it doesn’t really get down to the nitty gritty of what is happening in an organization at a macro level to inhibit or foster innovation, and what to do about it.  I’m an activity theorist at heart, so I tend to structure my method to madness around a  version of Star and Griesemer’s idea of boundary objects.  I think of boundary objects as organizational artefacts – people, committees, money, positions, policies, procedures – that can be inhibitive or facilitative.  They sit at the boundary of many spheres of activity, not just your own innovation agenda, and as Director/VP/President of Innovation you probably have to create some new boundary objects too.  The key is understanding which ones are important to the innovation vision that you have proposed (and has been endorsed) so that you can move ahead with your plans.

There are some obvious first places to examine in your institution and assess whether they are facilitating innovation or inhibiting it.  The most obvious place to start is the teaching and learning centre.

Teaching and Learning Centres: Is your T&L centre facilitative or inhibitive?  T & L Centres in my experience are a bit of an innovation paradox, in that they are well positioned to be an innovation hub for the institution but often need to be reinvented and transformed in order to do this.  This is especially the case with well-established T & L Centres that have become highly invested and good at doing one or two things (curriculum development, faculty development)  at the expense of others.   While the role of T&L centres is generally to enhance teaching and learning at the institution, my view is that given that these Centres are often centrally funded, ultimately their role is to make the lives of teaching and learning staff easier.  As with ‘innovation’ , this means different things to different people.  The VP Academic might very well see the T & L centre’s priority to increase the quality of teaching at the institution, but is this the Dean’s immediate priority? The Dean’s priority might be to have a simpler way of managing curriculum in its Faculty.  The faculty member might just want some support on the online course environment that they’ve been asked to teach.  Within this context, innovation competes with numerous other priorities.

If this is the case at your institution,  then I like the idea of invoking (in academic terms again) a third space* – a sort of fail safe zone or zones for innovation and transformation that is separate yet connected to the T & L Centre.  Plenty of institutions do this, and sometimes it can look like off-the-side-of-the-desk rogue activity, or unofficial clusters of activity, but I think it stands a better chance of succeeding if it has been endorsed and supported by the senior admin and the budget, rather than being an under-the-radar secret.

In order for these third spaces to work, they need to consider other barriers to innovation:  time, money, people, and bureaucracy.  This could be a whole other post, but simply put, if you innovation space requires a lot of effort to access the equipment, money, people, then it’s not really helping anybody.  This might be stating the obvious, but here are a couple of examples I’ve seen:

  1.  innovation equipment locked up in a separate room 3 or 4 buildings over from the teaching site.  Only the most keen and confident instructor will bother getting to campus early to go and grab the equipment and set it up.
  2. innovation funding processes that require filling out long, elaborate forms, that then have to be endorsed by multiple committees over a several month process.  Faculty are busy, and if it takes more hours to get the money than to use the money then there’s little ROI for them.  Also, if they have an idea they want to implement, it’s usually time sensitive.  This process also doesn’t support the notion that innovation is messy and sometimes fails.
  3. innovation that has to fit into existing systems, technologies, world views. Eg. an e-portfolio project that has to use the institutionally endorsed (read: expensive) e-portfolio tool.   This is a tricky one. On the one hand supporting innovation means that it should support the innovation vision of the institution (see second post on this) and it’s not a free for all.  But on the other hand, you have to know where you can let it go and challenge existing thoughts on this…for example, does it really have to tie into the institutional LMS, SIS, policy XYZ?  For me, third spaces should challenge the status quo where appropriate, otherwise it’s not really innovation.

Institutions often get into trouble with #3, because they’ve overly invested in certain technologies and want to see a measurable ROI, have created overly inhibitive structures (steering committees, policies), or lack vision and leadership on innovation.  Which unfortunately means that if you’re in a senior position with innovation as part of your job title/portfolio, and you don’t have the means or senior support to remove the barriers, then you’ve got a really tough job ahead of you.

*(Guiterrez, 1999, but nicely summarized here.)