The authors, two recovering former chief academic officers (Dr. John Gardner and Dr. Vicki McGillin) and a former professor of theater turned practitioner of improvement science (Dr. Brandon Smith), have been facilitating for the past two years a year-long cohort which is known as The Chief Academic Officer’s Innovation Community. This year-long experience brought together academic leaders from diverse institutional settings and invited them to consider and apply new approaches to leadership through innovation. What follows is an introduction summarizing our reasons for building such a community and why the authors think these innovation approaches, informed by both literature and lived experience, have broad-reaching application for academic leadership.
Our effort to infuse innovation into academic leadership is based on this core premise: your institution is perfectly organized to get the results you are getting right now. For most of us outside the elite admissions sector, those results, especially in terms of student learning and success, are not satisfactory. This also means that many of our outcome metrics don’t offer practitioners what is needed for rapid, data-driven improvement. Hence, we need radical change in the ways we organize and execute our academic administrative roles. Academic administrators spend far too much time maintaining the status quo (in academic scheduling, course and degree offerings, antiquated curricula, pedagogies that aren’t reaching today’s students, and the academic reward system that maintains this status quo). Given that our primary institutional outcomes are supposed to be student learning and the awarding of academic credits and credentials, promoting innovation throughout the academic experience would seem to be most critical.
To “break out” from this status quo we must have more innovative leadership from the academic administrative ranks. The central problem with this desired goal is that the principal pathways into academic administrative roles do not often teach, reward, or require academic innovation. Professing long enough to achieve senior faculty rank, becoming department chair and/or academic dean often involve a career primarily devoted to continuing current practices in order to maintain peace in one’s family of fellow academics. This challenge to innovation in the leadership pipeline is further complicated by the fact that the students who are joining us are changing rapidly, entering an academy that we didn’t design for them, and posing a huge challenge for us to understand and respond to appropriately and effectively. Hence, academic administrators are needed who can also be institution-wide innovators and who have the skills, vision, and courage to develop new models, curricula, pedagogies, learning structures and partnerships with others who support student success.
Why is Academic Leadership Perfectly Positioned to Drive Improvement?
We maintain that CAOs and their academic leadership staff are the chief developers of the institution’s most important resource for advancing student learning: its faculty. As advocates for the faculty and the primary shapers of the faculty rewards’ systems, they have the potential to drive innovation and quality. Academic leaders are also the primary drivers of the academic mission and core values, institutional academic quality and continuous quality improvement (and protectors from the corporatization of the academy). Academic leadership shapes innovation in its role as the primary academic resource allocator and in its hiring the deans and department chairs who, in turn, hire and lead the faculty. Critically, academic leadership serves as the principal advocate for student success and as the convenor of innovation in academic success. Academic leaders often initiate the integration of academic/student success, and student affairs’ roles.
Core Elements for Enhancing Innovation in Academic Leadership
What are the key elements called for to develop academic innovators? We want to set the stage for a series of case studies that will hopefully follow this lead article and offer exemplars of innovative ideas and outline processes used to design, build, and test systemic improvements that meet unmet institutional needs.
Four Key Questions for Academic Innovators:
- As an academic administrator who aspires to provide innovation to undergird your leadership, where might you get started?
- How might you create an innovation team of colleagues to stimulate a community of innovation?
- What kind of “mindset” do you need to cultivate and nourish in yourself and other innovators you want and need to surround yourself with?
- What are some key strategies we suggest you use to develop innovations, drawing especially from the field of improvement science?
Making Innovation Practical and Practicable
When is innovation needed? The authors posit that innovation is necessary whenever a system produces undesired outcomes. One of the critical challenges facing aspiring innovators is that innovation, as a practice, is not always cultural; it’s not always part of our daily routines in academe. Instead, many administrators are tasked with “keeping the trains running on time,” which involves routine tasks designed to uphold current systems and operational outputs. When working within this paradigm, the majority of one’s time is spent, sometimes frantically, working in existing modalities and compensating for inefficiency or poor design. Can you think of any routine work in which you might be involved that is inefficient or is producing undesired outcomes? If so, you and your institution might benefit from some innovation. The authors believe that innovation can become part of the routine business of higher education through processes and investment of time and resources.
Limiting factors related to the advancement of innovation are many. The sheer volume of problems we face may actually reinforce our desire to push through familiar work routines so that we can just “get it done.” In simply continuing what has been done before in a system producing undesirable outcomes, we strengthen habits around outcome perpetuation and essentially maintain systemic outputs. One example of this comes from a small, independent, liberal arts college in the Southeast that had been recording large and unchanging attrition rates for over 10 years. Each year they made one additional minor adjustment to their first year offerings, with no change in retention. Only when they changed to a systems aproach that identified multiple root causes and acted on that plan did they see rapid improvements in retention. A second example should also be familiar to those in academic affairs. Changing demographics, enrollments and institutonal supports has led to the budgeting approach that prioritizes institutional comradery and shared suffering over strategic actions by trimming every budget x percent year after year and expecting different outcomes. Unfortunately, strong, growing programs that could support the instituton suffer as much as weaker academic programs graduating few majors but costing as much to maintain.
Improvement Science (Langley et al, 2012; Crow, Hinnant-Crawford, Spaulding, 2019) is a form of practitioner research that invites scholar-practitioners to engage in a methodology of continuous improvement. With roots tracing back to industry and healthcare, improvement science repurposes tools and learning from processes like Lean and Six Sigma and leverages proven improvement practices to visualize and reimagine education systems. In its early years, the methods were used primarily in the K-12 system, but in recent years, improvement science tools and methodology have been successfully applied in postsecondary ecosystems.
At a high level, the methodology we’ve adapted for applying Improvement Science to practical innovation work is as follows:
- Identify needs and systems outputs that aren’t desired or sustainable.
- This takes the shape of looking at data or collecting new data realted to how you might measure the success of the institution. The problems are not the measures, things like retention or grad rates, but the system that is producing those outcomes.
- Investigate the problems of practice and root causes that exist and how local context impacts current systems and outcomes.
- By inviting diverse teams to identify how the current policies and practice differentially impact diverse populations and interact to produce outcomes, teams better understand where changes can actually be made and impact measured.
- Design innovation that is specific to local needs and drives improvement.
- By mapping how multiple areas of the institutions interact, stakeholders can consider a myriad of opporrtunities and innovate to find drivers of change that solve multiple issues. Essentially, solutions that feed two (or more birds) from one bowl!
- Create and test your theory of change, collect data, and make course corrections.
- Innovations should be tested before they are scaled. Institutional teams create cogent theories of change and design rapid cycles of inquiry with multiple measures to ensure that their changes will yeild a desired set of outcomes.
- Create a plan of action with leading, intermediate, and lagging measures.
- Once the team has plan that is ready for scaling, data must still be collected to promote continous improvement. Systems have inputs that include human beings, our students, faculty, and staff. As shifts occur within our community, leading lagging and intermediate metrics should be monitoried to ensure we are still achieving our goals.
- Share learning broadly.
- As we learn how to harness innovation and imrpovment practices, it’s critical that we share our learning with others in the field so that we can all advance our collective missions which advance a more educated, empowered, and just society.
The above-mentioned process involves the routine use of frameworks that unravel systems’ complexity. Rather than oversimplifying complex systems, the work invites deconstruction of complexity so that it can be analyzed; innovation can then be targeted and tested. The authors believe that by building a process for innovation, one can practice innovation, and through practice, one can improve.
In the field of systems theory (von Bertalanffy, 1968), there are two kinds of change. First-order change is change that improves the functioning of the system as it is. It is reversible, and it is designed to tweak/improve the current system to produce somewhat better outcomes. Second-order change involves changes that alter the fundamental structure of the system itself in order to produce fundamentally different outcomes. Academic leaders who have been groomed for leadership roles that involve learning best how to support the current policies and practices of the institution (first-order change) are rarely well placed to turn around and promote innovative or transformational change (second-order change). This involves a shift in mindset from mechanic to designer. But it can be learned.
In our work with the Chief Academic Officer Innovation Community, we have helped academic leaders step “outside” their systems so that they could better observe the structures (mindsets/ power / relationships / policies /practices) of their systems that were supporting less desired outcomes. We do this through a set of “mindset” exercises, including relaxation and focusing experiences, explorations of “flow”(Csikszentmihalyi, 2008) and the importance of setting aside “non-time” for truly creative work. We help them understand the systems supporting their institutions (and themselves) “as they are”, promote out of the box thinking and exercises to break “logjams” in their current models as well as models for finding joy in their work.
Community is the third critical component in the development of innovation among academic leaders While the scope of the work of the CAO and their staff may vary from college to university and system to system, they will all have authority for student learning outcomes, degree excellence, curriculum and the academic staffing (faculty and administrators) responsible for the delivery of those experiences to students. As such they are responsible for the production of the core “products” of higher education – an educated constituency of students prepared to put their learning to work in the real world.
Standing at the top of these experiences, academic leaders often have few colleagues whom they can turn to as peers. Provosts could raise curricular issues in the cabinet or with their direct reports, but neither of those groups can speak as knowledgeable peers. Deans, Chairs, and Directors may have several colleagues at their same level, but none who share the unique experiences that each faces in their role. Finding a community of trusted peers can be invaluable. Innovation calls for risk taking, stepping outside the system that IS and envisioning the system as it COULD BE. A cohort of peers who share your leadership challenges and with whom you can explore potentially risky opportunities, is invaluable. Such a trusted peer cohort can support you as you develop outside the box solutions within a halo of confidentiality. Academic leaders in public systems often meet regularly. Is that a venue to seek out innovation peers? Regional and national consortia often hold meetings of “practice leaders” (or could do so if invited to). Could you use that as a venue? Alternatively, have you met peers at national or regional conferences with whom you could develop a personal peer cohort? Find yourself a cohort of peers with which you can explore risky but exciting innovations.
Practicing Innovation: Future Case Studies for The ACAD Leader
What might it look like for you, the reader, to practice innovation? Are there long-standing issues at your institution that you believe require innovation? What will happen if your institution doesn’t innovate?
In future issues of The ACAD Leader, we plan to share the stories of participants from the CAO Innovation Community. Our hope is that these case studies will provide practical knowledge, tools, and inspiration that can fuel your own innovative endeavors.
Crow, R., Hinnant-Crawford, B. N., Spaulding, D. T. (Eds.) (2019). The educational leader’s guide to improvement science: Data, design, and cases for reflection. Myers Education Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Langley, G.J., Moen, R.D., Nolan, K.M, Nolan, T.W., Norman, C.L, & Provost, L.P.
(2009). The improvement guide (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory: Foundations, development. New York: George Braziller.