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Business Officer Magazine
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To Innovate, Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Leaders of four institutions that captured NACUBO 2010 Innovation Awards explain how to set the stage for fresh thinking.

By Margo Vanover Porter

During interviews for Business Officer, leaders of four of these institutions elaborated on how to set the stage for fresh thinking. The fear of taking risks can block innovation at institutions, says William Thirsk, vice president of information technology and chief information officer, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York. 

"When you introduce a new technology, it can disrupt your internal operations and can cause organizational discontent," he says. "When we faced this, I went to my programmers and other users saying, 'This is going to be a little uncomfortable because no one has done this before. We'll be inventing new ways of using this type of system. You will be the ones people come to in the future to learn how to do this.' Luckily, we're used to innovation here. We had some bumps along the road, but it worked out."

Read interviews with representatives from all seven institutions that received the NACUBO 2010 Innovation Awards:

You also need to watch out for management insecurity, cautions Steve Kreidler, executive vice president, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond. "People who are middle and upper management sometimes block creative ideas because they think it makes them look bad for not having thought of it themselves," he says. "I think it does just the opposite. Managers look good for encouraging great ideas to burble to the top."

To create an environment where innovation is celebrated, rather than feared, institutional leaders offer seven suggestions:

Recognize the innovators. "We celebrate the people who succeed, the people who bring us game changers," Thirsk says. "We hold a reception for them. We write articles about them. We apply for awards on their behalf. We promote them and give them financial rewards. You have to do the whole thing."

Listen to complaints—buried in them somewhere may be a suggestion, Kreidler says. "We have to remember that people only complain about things they care about. It's a way they express their values. We need to retrain our ears so these comments don't sound like complaints but suggestions. They may use a complaining tone because they've never been in an environment where a positive suggestion was well accepted."

Form a team. "Business officers can create an environment that encourages innovation by organizing an innovation team," advises Paul J. Healy, executive director of emergency management and department of public safety, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut. "The innovation team should consist of personnel from various divisions to ensure the presence of cross-discipline skill sets." Mentored by a consultant or human resources representative, the innovation team could generate ideas to improve the institution's programs and services, achieve institutionwide synergies in work functions and processes, and create new revenue streams through entrepreneurial programs.

Involve your stakeholders. "Get out of your comfort zone," urges Teresa E. Smith, vice president for administrative services and chief financial officer, Tallahassee Community College, Florida. "I know I had to. You have to totally open up your mind and involve people who might not normally be included in the process but who have the creative juices flowing. Talk to and engage your front-line people and constituents."

Rethink decisions. "Look at the assets you are managing," Thirsk encourages.  "Can you get more out of those assets if you did one or two things differently? Can you expand the life of the asset? Can a little training change everything about an office? If business officers persistently improve the skill levels and training and review the decisions they made before, they will see improvement."

Ask for ideas. Sounds simple, but managers don't do it often enough, Kreidler says. "Innovation occurs when people feel empowered on a day-to-day basis and when upper- and midlevel managers consistently seek out new solutions," he says. "A great thing for managers to say at a meeting is, 'We have some pain points. How do we get out of this pain?' The big issue is to support people when they bring ideas to the table. Once people feel supported on small things, they will be willing to take a risk on something bigger." 

Permit failure. "We need to let people know they won't be punished if our experiment fails," Thirsk says. "When that happens, people start to grow and take advantage of the innovative environment around them. We learn lessons even in failure."

MARGO VANOVER PORTER wrote the articles in the Innovation Award series. She covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.