Creating Innovation Leadership

min read

Key Takeaways

  • The innovation leader's role requires an entrepreneurial attitude with skills in management and negotiation, along with deep domain knowledge in technology and education.
  • It also involves elements of cognitive and behavioral psychology, economics, and an opportunity to really affect the future of education.
  • This role also requires a healthy amount of pragmatism, expectation setting, optimism, communication — and evangelizing.

David Pinkus, Vice President of Innovation, Western Governors University

Like "cloud" and "adaptive" before it, "innovation" has taken over as the cure-all buzzword for IT departments or technology-centered companies across the country. And if we thought "adaptive" was poorly defined, "innovation" is an even more slippery term. People throw out clichés like "Think like Apple" or "Figure out the future," which are pretty nebulous goals to measure at an annual review. What's an innovation leader to do?

In every case, the expectations are usually pretty high. Unless you already have a plan for nuclear fusion (the peak of innovation!), you need to approach the innovation leader's role with a healthy amount of pragmatism, expectation setting, optimism, and, above all else, communication. These characteristics have helped me create my role as vice president of innovation at Western Governors University and establish WGU's Office of Innovation.

Background for My Role

I had served on the advisory board for the IT College at WGU since 2006, while working for Google managing the recruiting and hiring of development teams and leading the Tempe, Arizona, site. The provost of WGU and I had worked together formerly at another company, and he recommended me for a role helping to craft the IT College curriculum by sharing some of the competencies Google looked for in new hires. The WGU competency-based framework resonated immediately with me, because even after graduating from Carnegie Mellon and going to work for Oracle many years earlier, I had been astonished at how little I really knew when starting my career. Fortunately, Oracle had a college recruiting program and invested heavily in training new recruits, but not all companies could do that. It was inspiring to find a school that listened to employers and ensured a strong alignment between its curriculum and what employers expected from new graduates.

Prior to my advisory role with WGU (and between stints at Oracle and Google), I had started and built a software company, then went on to run the software department at the Apollo Group, building the largest learning management system in the world for the University of Phoenix and managing all of the systems responsible for the student life cycle. After Google I went to another startup (a technology provider to major publishers), which focused on the neuroscience of learning and how memory forms from the process of learning. I continued to serve on the board of WGU, and they reached out to me with a position opening that, while interesting, wasn't a perfect fit. After more discussion, we mutually thought that a role looking at the future of learning at the largest CBE university in the United States (WGU has 60,000 students) would be the best match. The school was growing and scaling, and faced many interesting problems to solve, but this role had to avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day IT infrastructure and instead focus on the question "How good can we get?" Since there aren't roles like "VP of Getting Better" or "VP of the Future" (which on reflection would actually be a really cool title), we agreed that innovating the scalability of WGU's business model was the mandate, and so chose the "VP of Innovation" title.

This role requires an entrepreneurial attitude with skills in management and negotiation, along with deep domain knowledge in technology and education. It also involves elements of cognitive and behavioral psychology, along with economics and an opportunity to really affect the future of education, potentially at a national or even global scale. The role also offers a great opportunity to evangelize the WGU model, which is based on the idea that a university should be student-centric, teach real-world competencies, measure learning and not time, and allow students to work online and on their own schedule. That's why in 2013 Fast Company recognized WGU as the 28th most innovative company—not just in education, but on the same list as Nike (1), Amazon (2), Google (11), Apple (13), Ford (27), and Yelp (30).

I was also drawn to the nonprofit nature of the school, and the fixed tuition of $6,000/year with an all-you-can-eat credit model. My father never went to college, but as a union electrician was still able to send his three children. As a parent of four college-bound children myself, if all of them went to my alma mater, tuition today (according to the CMU website) would be over a million dollars of after-tax money. Since my oldest is 14 and my youngest 8, that number will only increase. Even as a working professional with Carnegie Mellon and Google on my resume (and I still drive a 15-year-old car), that's a difficult financial hurdle. I wanted to be part of a model that could challenge the cost structure of education and potentially disrupt it. I have numerous friends, very well-educated and contributing greatly to society, who have deliberately decided to limit themselves to one or two children because of the excessive cost of higher education. I don't think that's best for our society, and I don't want the future to be like the movie Idiocracy.

Building the Office of Innovation

The VP of Innovation role required a team, not simply a position, and I was relieved to find that people in the organization approached me and wanted to help be change agents. While our original mandate was "How good can we get?" it quickly became apparent that the most immediate manifestation of that was "How can we scale?" The university had grown quickly, and some issues of scalability were solved by throwing more bodies at the problem. That might work, and may even be scalable, until Brooks's Law kicks in (there is an incremental person that when added to a project makes it take more, not less time). These scalability problems required not just attacking individual systems, but in some cases completely rethinking processes across the university or even rethinking our complete courseware strategy.

Six themes began to emerge:

  • People want a safe and welcoming forum to share their ideas (which sometimes emerge from frustration). Provide it.
  • The best contrarians are polite contrarians.
  • Publish and share the data you collect, and ask contributors to verify and source it. There seems to be an endless supply of anecdotes that will bog you down if you don't demonstrate that you are data-driven.
  • Start with smaller, safer ideas to test the receptivity of the organization to change. Don't underestimate the importance of change management.
  • Pull together a team of "trusted troublemakers"—those who have credibility in the organization, want change, and will help instigate grassroots efforts to effect it.
  • Your opportunity to see "the big picture" may differ from what many others in the organization experience. They might not understand all of the factors that contributed to your thinking, which can get a little lonely sometimes. Make time for thinking and reflection, in whatever mode suits you, and don't fear being alone in some of your conclusions.

Not surprisingly, people throughout the organization already knew many of the challenges in growing and scaling the WGU model, and they had many ideas on how to solve them. That brings up one of the first lessons in building an Office of Innovation: Provide a safe place for people to share their ideas, and take calls and meeting requests from anybody, anywhere in the organization. In the first few weeks after my role debuted, the group of people most invested in change had already made themselves known and willingly answered my questions to help me understand the issues' background.

Many of the questions I raised early on were met with a shrug and "That's how we do it." Shrugs are great because they mean that the person is not invested in the current solution. You can float alternatives with them, and you'll get great information on why your ideas might not work or be embraced. Here's where the "polite contrarian" comes in. I can't overemphasize the importance of courtesy here, because as your passion and excitement increase around solving a problem, you'll find few situations where everybody is anxiously awaiting the solution. Usually someone feels invested in the status quo or the decision that led to the current situation, and while the benefit of time might have softened their position, people don't like to be told they're wrong or their ideas invalid. Be sensitive to those who created the current situation and seek their help. Propose ideas and enlist their support so they can feel like they're part of the solution. Nobody likes a cynic or a know-it-all. If you can make the improvement their idea, do it, and then help champion it.

One of the perils with building an office or role with "innovation" in the title it is that some people might expect that if they present you with a question or problem, you'll immediately have a wonderful, even magical solution. It doesn't work like that. A lot of research, listening, synthesizing, and refining ideas underlie the result. That's where documentation comes in. Sharing documentation is one of the most powerful things you can do. Anecdotes and myths can kill your progress and stifle ideas; your best response is, "The data shows…." One of the first things we did in the WGU Office of Innovation was build out a wiki with everything we were working on. We also tracked down reports and all of the data warehouses holding the actual metrics relevant to our projects. Developing a pattern of sharing your thoughts or having 10-minute meetings starting with "I wanted to get your eyeballs on this" ensures that you don't go down a rabbit hole and can identify the obstacles early on. Don't hide out working on your big ideas. Share them early and often.

As you build your office of innovation, find some low-hanging fruit and use those opportunities to test out the organization's receptivity to change. How many people need to be in the loop with each change? This information will be critical, because as your ideas get bigger and broader, you will to need to strategically manage your time and energy related to change communication. Scott Burken wrote about this in The Myths of Innovation—that the ability to pitch ideas and how the ideas make people feel are more important than the merit of the ideas.1 That means that as you build an office of innovation, focus on the feelings created as you implement and evangelize your changes.

Usually a team will help you with change management. I call them trusted troublemakers, and they often have great ideas. They're equally invested in change and will help you evangelize ideas throughout the organization. They've likely been with the organization for a while and have earned respect internally, but needed a little more clout to get their ideas implemented. Make them your allies as soon as possible. You'll know you're succeeding when they close their e-mails with phrases like "I'm in!" or "I'm so relieved we are finally solving this."

Lastly, sometimes this role can be lonely; not because you need solitude to process your ideas (although you do), but because organizations have inertia and you may need to defy convention to promote your ideas. The simplest example is trying to convince a group that the symptoms they see, and can allegedly fix, are going to reemerge a year later if they don't fix the root problem. Frankly, they might not care, especially if the root problem is a project for some other group. Besides the obvious notion that getting to the root of an issue will save work later (including your ability to scale), it's critical to promote the idea of continuous improvement and seeking out and correcting the bad design decisions that got us to this point. That makes it obvious to the team developing solutions in the first place that they may need to think a little more long-term about their implementation or design, because they know the problem will come back to them in the future. We've all heard the adage "fix it right the first time," but it takes a high level of trust, communication, and competency to broker and promote that within an organization. You'll quickly surface trust issues between departments when you dive deeply into problems, and while the ultimate payoff may be really great for all of the beneficiaries, it has to be so much so that they'll forgive you for the time it took to get there. This big-picture approach can be a little unpopular sometimes, and you'll need to find a way to manage your energy and persevere.

You'll also need quality time to incubate your ideas; a back-to-back meeting schedule and full inbox will kill your creativity, as will exhaustion. So take care of yourself, schedule time to document what you are working on, and make time to just think. Don't compromise your thinking time for another meeting or replying to another e-mail. Related to this idea is that every e-mail reply that will take more than three sentences should go onto your wiki, which you can refer people to. This level of reuse will help keep you sane.

Deploying Innovations and Cultural Change

Some companies have a culture of big projects with big goals and delivery dates that indicate the project is done, followed by a celebration. But more and more, problems require a product-oriented mindset with no end date, an approach that seeks to continuously serve and improve. That might require a cultural shift at all levels of the organization, which can only be achieved if you can show how the underlying processes need to prevent problems from resurfacing. Innovative ideas are best explored via lots of hypotheses that can be piloted and tested; measurement systems that can be implemented; and a focus on the data. When the data shows what works or doesn't work, change the go-forward plan so that every time the system or process is touched or changed, the new process is already baked in. The system thus forces change based on evidence collected. This planned change approach manages risk and more importantly develops a culture of continuous improvement. This can be a hard cultural shift for a group addicted to the mega-project and definite conclusions. Continuous improvement, like agile development, requires you to get comfortable with your discomfort. We all live with ambiguity. Not everyone can make this transition, but the data shows that agile organizations perform better. There are even new conversations around agile programming for your family. It's a model that works, but it takes time for people to embrace because it takes effort to manage. Until you get used to doing it well, it might take some time for the benefits to emerge. But we'll save the conversation of "Why agile is better" for another time.

A Final Word of Advice

An office of innovation can take on some really fantastic and interesting problems. Some of the most interesting ones I've encountered have been managing versioning and deployment for all WGU courses and programs; developing a piloting and A/B testing framework to see what really works in learning; and developing an economic and incentive model that aligns publishers with student success. For example, we might pay courseware developers and publishers more when students pass the courses sooner than scheduled and with fewer attempts at the summative high-stakes assessments (which are expensive to administer). Since courseware vendors have no access to our assessments, they have to focus on an immersive courseware experience with knowledge mastery at the core. A few other really interesting projects involve our competencies and industry — providing more visibility for employers in our graduates' competencies, more visibility for students in employer-desired competencies, and information on how our degree programs align with the competencies that companies seek.

The final bit of advice I can offer for somebody considering a role like this is "small steps lead to giant leaps." Education needs big thinkers and doers who have courage, and it's likely that what eventually gets called "the great education innovation" will really be the aggregate of a lot of smaller innovative ideas that a lot of people tested and tried and implemented to move the industry forward. Neil Armstrong's giant leap was really the culmination of many, many small steps and lots of planning and testing. Fear nothing and step forward as an innovation leader.

  1. Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation (Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, August 2010).