Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Innovation From All Sides

Over the last few years, Innovation and Disruption seem to be making the rounds along the conference circuit.  Those speeches effects can be found in the actions of CIOs around the country making innovation teams, and disruption evaluation projects.  Unfortunately, most attempts to harness innovation and disruptive methodologies seem designed to run afoul of the same processes that have killed innovation in the past.

Decades ago, when explaining how to productively brainstorm, Alex Osborn made the case that quantity of ideas coming out of a brainstorming session was more important than the quality of the ideas.  The less restrictive the bounds on presenting ideas, the more ideas presented during a brainstorming session.  And, with more ideas, and less restrictions, one might actually find that golden nugget of an idea that can change everything.

Establishing a defined innovation group seems to fight that freedom that actually leads to challenging ideas.  By establishing a group dedicated to washing a fleet of cars, no one else feels empowered or has the responsibility to ensure that the cars get washed.  Washing cars is someone else’s job and I heard that Bob got in trouble for washing his own fleet car.  But, for any organization, presenting a good image is everybody’s responsibility.  The analogy holds, and generating ideas that can improve an organization is everyone’s responsibility.

And, any innovation group has to be ready to present their ideas to management.  Those ideas have to be actionable and there’s always a pressure to produce – on a timetable.  Anyone that will produce a truly innovative idea loves knocking around ideas for improvement.  Hopefully, an innovation team enjoys doing that even more.  But when those ideas have to be codified and reported up the management chain on a defined timetable, an enjoyable exercise becomes one more task that has to be addressed for the week.  Given that most innovation teams are composed of managers and subject matter experts tasked with a great quantity of work, this makes “innovation” work even more onerous.  Formalization of innovation can quickly make an enjoyable and rewarding exercise into a painful and soul-killing experience.

Innovative ideas can be the lifeblood of an institution.  But they don’t have to be big ideas to have big effects.

Recent readings in the Harvard Business Review all point to creating value for customers as being the criteria for which new ideas should be judged.  And creating value for customers, whether they are students or consumers, comes from understanding their needs.  Understanding the needs of our constituencies is not owned by upper level management, or even the most technically astute among us.  The needs of our constituencies are best understood by our constituency itself.  They may not be in a position to design solutions, but they know what they need.

And, in the case of a public university, our constituency consists of every student, staff, or faculty member that ever steps foot on campus.  They can be the font of innovative ideas that propel universities forward.  Innovation teams may be necessary, but not as the creators of innovative ideas, but as the people that make those ideas a reality.  An environment that fosters creativity doesn’t need to be much more than an environment that doesn’t crush it. 

Innovation teams can serve a vital role in that environment – but they don’t own innovation.
I was walking across UF campus some months ago with my daughter and talking about her future.  We tossed around the normal topics: school, her future, career, insecurities and son.  But in the midst of the discussion we crossed one of our many green spaces and I pointed out one of our wireless access points that we have mounted in one of our campus blue light phones.

I thought I had found a great teachable moment.  I told her the story of how that installation came to be.  Folks from networking had a problem, they reached out to folks in telecom, a member of UFPD chimed in with a solution, and finally working with grounds we had delivered Wi-Fi to the space.  It wasn’t really any one group’s job but an idea had taken hold and everyone made it happen.  I avoided terms like “leveraging original investment” and “maximizing return on deployment”.  I didn’t want to turn her off the conversation with jargon.  And then she asked a question.

“Where’s the camera?”

She had been paying attention and wanted to know with all the infrastructure in place, why hadn’t we put a camera there as well.  Wouldn’t we want prospective students to see how much fun it was playing Frisbee in the field?  Wouldn’t we want to have a live camera where students came to protest?  With all the work we had already put into the location, putting up a camera seemed simple… to her.

None of the highly paid technical professionals that worked on the project had considered the possibility.

With that, I went to work getting a camera in place.  It hasn’t gone online yet.  There have been holdups and roadblocks. But good ideas don’t die an easy death.

And good ideas can come from anywhere.  Listen to everyone at your institution, that’s where the next game changing idea will come from.  The groundskeepers will know some of the secrets of an institution that an executive will never understand.  Whether that knowledge can be acted upon or not, will be the province of administrative personnel but do not discount the input of the rank and file.

Often, they understand “you” better than you do yourself.