The IF

I am super excited to announce The Innovation Forum For Career Services, an event I’m co-coordinating with my friend and colleague Ray Angle.  The event takes place on August 1 and 2, 2013 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  It features keynotes, plenary sessions, a panel, plenty of discussion time and the Career Services Innovation Idea Challenge.   You can read more at our site:

If you’re a career services pro interested in innovation, this is the event for you!


Do we lack the skills of the innovator?

In a recent Fortune article titled Why is Innovation So Hard, there is a quote that is very important for those of us in higher education to consider.

“The primary function an organization’s rhythm is to maintain equilibrium.”

Why this quote has special meaning for higher ed pros is that part of the foundation of our organizations, part of why they are so long-lasting and why they outlive Fortune 500 companies and other types of organizations, is that they have a rhythm and they have traditions.  The semester (or quarter) system cycle.  It lulls us.  Our institutions thrive for the service they provide to our society.   But, we survive by repetition and ritual.   Many (if not most) leaders become leaders because they are able to replicate and deliver effectively. In the so-far-excellent book (I’m only a few chapters in), The Innovator’s DNA, the authors state,

In contrast to innovators who seek to fundamentally change existing business models, products or processes, most senior executives work hard to efficiently deliver the next thing that should be done given the existing business model.

So, where does that leave the would-be innovator who is working within the system?   This isn’t another blog post about MOOCs or the latest EdTech start up.  This is about the higher ed pro who is pushing boundaries, iterating, pivoting and innovating inside their institution.

I don’t compose this with a lot of sage advice or solid answers in mind.   But, I am increasingly intrigued by those who choose to be in our field, but focus on the skills of an innovator — discovery, idea generation, questioning, experimenting, risk-taking, comfort with discomfort.  We don’t tend to hire for those skills.  We tend to hire for content/discipline knowledge and experience, along with personality factors and more standard workplace skills such as communication and teamwork.

Perhaps one key for the leaders of our various higher ed sub-fields is to begin thinking more broadly about what skills we need in our staffers.  Are we looking solely for the ability to replicate and duplicate.  Or should we more purposefully look beyond “best practices” for those “next practices.”

Has your office expanded the desirable skill set for your staffers?  Have you re-written job descriptions to include anything forward-facing?  Are you otherwise organizationally preparing yourselves to be more innovative?  I’d love to hear from you, if so.

Iterative, evolutionary and revolutionary innovations

In my last post I focused on different types of innovators.  In this post I want to share some thoughts on different types of innovation.  But, I’d like to start with a quick mention of the Wikipedia entry on innovation, which states (with some minor editing):

“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.”

All of those things — innovation, invention, improvement — tend to jumble together in my day-to-day conversations and thinking.  For example, I have a hard time saying something is simultaneously the creation of something better, but then also saying it’s not an improvement.  So, for the purpose of this post, I’m really not going to treat them any differently.

Now onto the heart of the actual discussion:  types of innovation.  There really are no set types, per se, and there are a lot of sources that discuss types of innovation (here and here for example).  But, I tend to think of innovations on a spectrum that looks like this:

Incremental innovation involves small adjustments to existing services or approaches, and I feel like this is what we see the most of in higher education.  A few examples:  in the career services field, where I currently work, this would be something like putting QR codes on the table tents at a career fair.  In admissions it might be using a new way to reserve spaces for campus visits.  These types of innovation, although small, still matter a lot.  So, please don’t interpret the spectrum as a substitute for bad-to-good or less-meaningful-to-more-meaningful.  Iterative innovations are vital.   But, on the downside, they typically do not bring about larger changes.  So, in instances where large-scale changes in not only style but substance is needed, you typically won’t get there through iteration.

Evolutionary innovation can seem like a large-scale change.  But, at its heart, the “new thing” is still strongly grounded in the “old thing.”   Again using the career fair example, this would be like hosting a “virtual career fair.”  It’s a new medium and environment, but is basically the same otherwise.  An academic advising office that begins to have digital signage to notify students where they are on the list of those to be seen (like Apple’s Genius Bar) is an evolutionary innovation.  These are a little more dramatic and noticeable than iterative innovations.   Evolutionary innovations have the potential to lead to larger-scale changes.  But, with hindsight, they tend to be an intermediary step along the way to something different.

Revolutionary innovation, as one might deduce, truly involves something different that leaves much of the old behind.   Continuing the career fair thread, whatever replaces fairs entirely (whenever that may occur) will be a revolutionary innovation.   When career services offices stopped doing “placement” and converted to “career education,” it was a revolutionary innovation.   Again, that’s not always to say these have more value, nor am I trying to imply that everyone is in a situation that demands or even needs to consider revolutionary innovation.   But, some of us may be.

Here is where I’d like to involve you in the conversation more purposefully.  How many truly revolutionary innovations can you think of in student affairs?  Some, no doubt, would have occurred around various civil rights movements.  Also, in what areas do you think there is a need for revolutionary innovation?  I’d love your thoughts.

What’s Your Innovation Type?

There has been conversation on the SA Collaborative Blog and in other places about “radical practitioners” and innovation in the student affairs space.  The dialogs have been spirited and thought provoking.  But, I think we’ve missed exploring more deeply at least one piece of the conversation, and that is that there isn’t just one way to be innovative or only one type of innovator.  There are a lot of books and articles that discuss types of innovators.  But, my go-to guide on the subject is Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley at IDEO (in fact, I might be just a little too into the book, because I’ve developed a self-assessment tool around the types he presents!).

In this blog I want to give a quick overview of the ten types and why recognizing that different types exist (even if you don’t agree with this specific list) is an important step in being able to involve others, or maybe involve yourself if you don’t think you’re an innovator, in this conversation.

A quick note that below I’m going to use the word “customer,” knowing that it can be problematic to call students customers.  But, substitute that word for your own preference: student, client, resident, guest, etc. as you see fit.

Kelley splits the ten types into three categories:

1. The Learning Personas
2. The Organizing Personas
3. The Building Personas

There are three types in the Learning Personas category.   The Anthropologist is the keen “eye witness.”  These people innovate by getting a deep understanding of interactions through observation.  The Experimenter is constantly in prototype mode.  These people innovate through “enlightened trial and error.”  The Cross-Pollinator is driven to pull from disconnected sources.  These people innovate by seeing something work in one context and applying it to another.

There are three types in the Organizing Personas category, as well.  The Hurdler is an expert at navigating obstacles.  These people innovate by pushing projects through roadblocks and overcoming bureaucracy.  The Collaborator thrives on bringing people together.  These people innovate by finding synergies and “multidisciplinary solutions.”  The Director also brings people together, but these people innovate by on leading these groups and sparking their talents.

There are four types in the Building Personas category.  The Experience Architect is concerned with creating “deeper” experiences.  These people innovate by looking beyond the basic needs of a customer or functions of a situation to create something special.  The Set Designer focuses on physical environments.  These people innovate through an understanding of how these environments impact behavior and attitude.  The Caregiver is one who provides truly great, personalized service. These people innovate by truly caring about customers and anticipating their needs.  The Storyteller is a developer of compelling narratives.  These people innovate by finding, and helping others find, meaning in the stories embedded in organizational culture and customer experience.

It’s difficult to convey these types in a few short sentences.  But, hopefully this quick overview will help you see that even if you don’t say to yourself, “I am an innovator,” that doesn’t mean you are not contributing to an environment that can be innovative.  Innovation is the application of new ideas and solutions.  But, the source of those can and do come from a variety of perspectives.  So, I encourage you to consider (or reconsider) how you are pushing your office, your field and our profession forward.

After doing the self-assessment that I created with my office, it was enlightening to discuss how we might approach different problems or situations through the different type lenses.  I don’t think that we are all only one type, and I don’t think that was Kelley’s intention.   But, I find it incredibly useful to try to see things with these types’ perspectives.  So, next time you’re in a meeting and find yourself wanting to say “can I play devil’s advocate for a minute.”  Instead say “can I play The Anthropologist for a minute” or “can I play The Set Designer for a minute” and see if you get better results!

Cross-posted on the Student Affairs Collaborative Blog

Lateral thinking for student affairs

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sources of inspiration for student affairs services and programs and in surveying the field think we would benefit from more lateral thinking. The folks at Wikipedia provide this definition for lateral thinking: “Lateral thinking is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.” But my primary introduction to the concept is through a book by Paul Sloane, called “The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills: Unlocking the Creativity and Innovation in You and Your Team.” It’s a good read that you should check out.

In Sloane’s book he tells the story of how at one point (think early 1900s), most retailers had a counter at the very front of the store. Customers walked in the front door and were met quickly by staff behind the counter. All the merchandise was kept behind the counter and customers told the staff what items they would like. These items were retrieved by the clerk. But one shop owner had an idea: what if the counter was in the back and all the merchandise was available to allow the customers to select their own items? Thus was created the modern retail experience, paving the way for how we shop today.

What can we do to “flip the store,” metaphorically speaking?   While the core of what we do is strong, there’s nothing preventing us from reinventing the way we “do business.”  Our approaches, our technologies, our processes, our programs, and how we think about what we do are all fair game for innovation and improvements.  We owe it to ourselves and to our students to do it.  So, I’m on the lookout.  How we can question everything and look for inspiration in places we might not normally consider? What have you seen other service industries or sectors doing that inspire you?

I’d love to hear from you.

Cross posted on the Student Affairs Collaborative Blog

Pinterest: passing fad or here to stay?

Pinterest has shown tremendous growth over the past six months and is one of the few newer (non-google) social media sites to gain traction. But, is it a fad that will show waning interest, like other recent semi-hits like Quora, or will it have a longer shelf life?

First, my theory on why Pinterest gained traction. I believe the visual nature of the site appeals to us for the same reason that photo sharing is such a primary activity in the social space. So, in this way, it shares the same traction that, say, Instagram does. But, it also initially tapped into an interest area and a target market (females predominately), and it “solved a problem,” in a way that many social media platforms don’t do. Many social media platforms fail to gain a core audience beyond the typical techie/early adopter set. Pinterest gave itself a leg up by avoiding that trap.

Obviously now that it does have that traction, it’s being leveraged by others beyond that initial audience. Brands from General Electric (fairly thin page) to Whole Foods (much more robust) are experimenting.  In the higher education space, University of Pennsylvania’s Career Services (and the great work of Shannon Kelly) is setting a standard with their page.  Others like Skidmore College’s D-Hall and University of Minnesota’s Student Union, along with many others, are dabbling.  It will be interesting to see where other student affairs pros take it.

So, to my original question:  is it a passing fad or here to stay.  Obviously we don’t know the full answer yet.  But, my feeling is that it has taken root and fills a gap and thus will be with us at least for a little while.  It’s a fun site and while it will probably continue to be a primary place for individuals to share, it will be intersting to watch brands continue to experiment and develop.

What do you think about Pinterest for student affairs departments?

Cross posted on The Student Affairs Collaborative Blog

Chasing cool versus chasing needs

Over on Brainzooming, Mike Brown has a piece up titled Chasing Cool Ideas vs. Solving Consumer Needs.  He provides a well-known quote from  Harvard professor, Theodore Levitt : “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill.  They want a quarter-inch hole!”

The heart of that argument is that organizations need to stay focused on the needs of the people they’re trying to serve.  In student affairs, we use language like that a lot — student-centered, student-focused, student-driven, etc.  But, when it comes to serving them, how often do we do what is convenient or safe or familiar for us instead of what is really needed or helpful for them?

Although I have a true and deep interest in innovation and forward thinking approaches, we have to remember what problems we’re trying to solve!

New blogging focus on innovation

My work recently has been focused quite heavily on innovation and forward-thinking approaches to career services and student affairs more broadly. As such, I’ve decided to revive my blog as a place to share and expand in those areas. Hopefully I can curate and contribute items that will be thought-provoking and industry-altering. I’ll be seeking out things that are creative, innovative, disruptive, and just downright interesting, including thoughts from service design, lateral thinking and broad ideation. I hope you’ll join in and share your comments and thoughts.

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