Postsecondary Trending Now: Time + Talent + Money = Commitment to Innovation

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Postsecondary Trending Now

We’re at the end of a three-year experiment here at EDUCAUSE. The last cohort of the Breakthrough Models Incubator (BMI) has or will be submitting their final plans for new competency-based and outcomes-based degree and certificate programs. And the last cohort of Breakthrough Models Academy (BMA) presented at the ELI Annual Meeting last month earning enthusiastic attention and praise from attendees for their forward-thinking models.

To all the teams from all three years of both programs, I offer a sincere congratulations. Some ideas died, others went a distance before grounding, a few got funded, some evolved into completely different things, and a few got launched as envisioned. And that is the way of innovation. We learned as much from the ideas that did not make it as from those that did; so to all the teams that participated in the programs, thank you!

Innovation work is all the buzz right now. At the end of February, I spoke at the USA Funds Symposium [] about innovation and the mindset, actions, and tools to set projects in motion. At the end of the day, setting projects in motion is the easy part. In Building a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education: Design & Practice for Leaders, my co-author Bryan Setser, Chief Design Officer of Matchbook Learning, and I observed that committing to innovation takes more. It requires the investment of time, talent, and money. Giving these resources to uncertain efforts is not easy. So to those who committed, time, talent and money to the BMI and BMA projects — the brave presidents and provosts of participating institutions and our funding partners at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — thank you.

Here are some lessons we learned about time, talent, and money from the Breakthrough Models Incubator and Breakthrough Models Academy.

The Secret to Talent is Diversity of Thought.

Innovation requires a clash of ideas. Institutions that are serious about leading the way into the next generation of learning cultivate their talent by exposing them to challenging professional development opportunities. They also seek diversity within their talent ranks to actively promote a myriad of ideas that will build on each other . Everyone in BMA and BMI benefitted from the diversity of ideas and provocative thinking brought forward by our speakers (Clay Christensen, Paul LeBlanc, Judith Eaton and many others). I found a common thread among our most successful BMI teams (by that I mean those who lifted off prototypes within a short period of time) that proved to be another important source for diverse thoughts: successful teams often were comprised of both seasoned higher education professionals and people from for-profit endeavors and universities. They counterbalanced each other well and were able to bring the best of both mindsets to bear on their problem solving.


The Secret to Time is Carving it Out Up Front.

Innovation takes time. The intra- and inter-institutional teams that brought forth noteworthy ideas from both BMA and BMI succeeded in large part due to their intentional planning and use of time. Presidents from BMI teams reserved time at each cross-functional executive team meeting to discuss and advance their projects. Inter-institutional teams set up working patterns for regular connection via conference calls or online workspaces and held each other gently, but seriously, accountable for work to be done. Teams made time to connect with outside coaches at monthly intervals as well, to get an outside perspective on their work and help negotiate the inevitable team dynamic issues.

Everyone in higher education is busy. Just keeping the trains on time is a challenge. Commitment to innovation means accepting that you’re going to be busier. Not only are you running the trains, you’re dreaming up entirely new modes of transportation at the same time.

The Secret to Money is Locked Inside Warren Buffet’s iPhone.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the FBI to force Apple to crack it open.

I don’t know if Warren Buffet actually has an iPhone or what’s in it, but I suspect he’d concur with me in this observation: the secret to money is knowing how to invest it. That’s actually two things — knowing how to invest AND actually making the investment. The beauty of the rapid prototyping approach to innovation which some of the BMI and BMA teams experimented with, is that by creating small experiments on a tight 90-day cycle, they were able to see quickly whether an idea was worth further investment. By actually making an investment, they put some skin in the game, which I think was critical in the end. Whether it was grant money or institutional money, it turned out to be influential that funds had to be accounted for in the end. It forced teams to take action.

One other observation: there is a tremendous opportunity created by the scarcity of funds that any one college or university is able to commit to innovations. It begs the field for more consortia and collaborations to work through and resolve some of the more pressing challenges. We were not able to realize this as fully as we hoped through the programs. But my hope is that participants will pick up where we left off and perhaps galvanize into a more formidable force themselves or lend their newly developed learning and expertise to existing networks. Their contributions to collective action within the field — whether as participants in experimental sites or members of the Competency-Based Education Network are important.

We’ll carry the innovation conversation forward within EDUCAUSE too. Our newly formed Leading Academic Transformation Community of Practice is rapidly growing and shaping up to be a place where innovators can continue learning, sharing, and doing exciting work with like-minded people beyond grant-funded projects.


It has been my privilege to explore this terrain with all of the teams participating in BMI and BMA. I have learned so many new things, grown as a professional, and met so many dedicated, creative people working for the betterment of our education system. We might have to work on the MONEY part a little bit and double down on carving out TIME, but these last three years have proven to me that we have the TALENT needed to meet the challenges in front of us and create workable, sustainable solutions. It’s been an inspiring three years — onward!

Holly Morris is director of postsecondary model development and adoption, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), at EDUCAUSE.