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Innovative Building Design

Innovation: Seeing new possibilities in old problems

Innovation continues to be a hot topic in many industries, yet for leaders who are charged with sparking change and bringing new ideas, it can be hard to innovate when you just keep looking at the same issues from the same angles.

Over the past four years, I’ve played a role in developing the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, an eight-month leadership program that prepares leaders of colleges and universities to bring much needed innovation to the academic world. Now concluding its fifth cohort, the Academy has earned a great reputation for attracting leaders whose institutions would like them to learn more about the future of higher education, how to bring innovation to their schools and how to lead innovation efforts. Cohort after cohort, I see leaders in the Academy discover that the old, intractable problems are not so intractable after all when the lens of innovation is applied. We draw upon the excellent work of Tim Ogilvie and Jeanne Liedtka, co-authors of Designing for Growth, to bring design thinking into the program, and each Fellow develops an Innovation Project that they will implement after the program concludes.

We’ve learned so much firsthand from designing an experiential leadership program focusing on innovation for leaders from the highly-disrupted field of higher education. Here are six highlights that I’d love to share:

  1. Innovation is about seeing new possibilities in old problems. To do this, one must have a clear-eyed view of the issues and a willingness to define the challenge with objectivity. You can’t see with new eyes if you won’t first take a pragmatic, realistic and holistic look at “what is.”
  2. Feedback feeds innovation.  Seeking input from key stakeholders early on is essential to defining the value that must be delivered through the innovation project. Left to our own devices, we often solve for what we know instead of being guided by the experiences and needs of those who are our “customers” or consumers of our services and products. By making a stakeholder map and taking time to interview those closest to the change, we create better, more thoughtful designs that go directly to the heart of what needs innovation. When we seek feedback, we have the best chance to succeed.
  3. Using a design thinking approach can get us out of the proverbial box.  Design thinking helps people to shift from analytical problem-solving to possibility thinking. We work in environments where people place emphasis on finding solutions. Our tendency is to define a problem and then set about solving it logically. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, as Einstein famously put it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created t” The design thinking process insists that leaders move from defining problems to considering, “what if…?” and “what wows?” The energy and motivation for change comes from answering these exciting questions with the fetters of problem-solving. Innovators learn to excel at possibility thinking and invite creativity, fresh approaches and breakthroughs.
  4. To be effective, innovation must make sense and fit the context to which it is applied.  In other words, no change for change’s sake, but rather a well-conceived innovation process that is connected to historical strengths, real and current needs and strategies that work for your organization. Rarely does innovation force us to abandon the values we hold true. Instead, by innovating, we discover new ways of demonstrating our values and mission while letting go of things that no longer serve.
  5. Piloting a prototype protects us from risk and lets us learn by doing.  The last stage of a design thinking process is to pilot the new concept and learn by testing it.  Having explored “how might we…?” and worked with input from stakeholders, we are ready to launch a well-considered pilot program, project or product and, once again, invite feedback. Instead of trying to present one solution as “the right answer,” an innovative approach allows us to be influenced by what we learned from the pilot. Unafraid of failure and eager to learn, we make course corrections and adapt accordingly. This fluid, creative approach builds support for change and increases the likelihood that we ultimately will get it right.
  6. Leading innovation calls for a special combination of capacities and skills from leaders.  The capacities needed to bring about innovation include, first and foremost, empathy, which guides the entire process as we consider the innovation from the perspective of those who have most at stake in it. Other capacities are curiosity, persistence, creativity and resilience (after all, there are setbacks!). The skills include deep listening, inquiry, collaboration, ability to influence others and storytelling. One must commit to learning and mastering these capabilities in order to lead innovative change effectively. Best of all, leading change is an experience that changes us – if we let it. Those who must bring about innovative and transformative change will grow tremendously as they learn how to do this. Giving someone an innovation challenge is an invitation to personal and professional growth.

At Nebo, we are exploring how innovations in leadership development through coaching, facilitation and experiential learning radically can improve the outcomes of our clients. I look forward to sharing more about what we’re learning in the months ahead. Meanwhile, I wonder how might innovative leadership in your organization spark creativity and momentum towards the strategic changes you really want?

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