Creating a Culture of Innovation: Seven Lessons (So far!)


Group at Idea Table

I arrived as VPSA at NYIT in 2013. The division I inherited was staffed with good, hard-working people dedicated to serving their students. However, I could see that there wasn’t a lot of new thinking going on and the notion that innovation should be a part of one’s professional practice was absent. That was something I would seek to change.

So, the day I began my new job I sent a document to everyone in the division introducing myself and I included a document where I listed and described my core professional values, one of which was innovation. Here’s what I said about innovation:

In order to be excellent and continually improve our services we must encourage creativity and innovation throughout the organization. Innovation is not merely incremental improvements. Innovations are qualitative changes that transform people, programs, and services. We will set aside time for staff to be creative and generate new ideas. We all need to forage for new ideas beyond the boundaries of NYIT, our sub-fields (e.g., counseling, athletics), student affairs, and higher education.

One of the first things I instituted was a mandatory weekly “Idea Generation” hour. This was an idea I got from Tony Doody (Rutgers University). On Fridays from 11 a.m. to noon, everyone was to take that hour and do nothing but generate ideas for their work. Each week, units compiled the ideas that were generated and submitted them to my office. By mid-October we compiled a 25-page document of ideas–some crazy, some sane, some impossible, some doable, some expensive, and some that cost little or nothing.

Lesson One – Innovation is not just for dreamers and “creative types.”

It is for people willing to take the time (or, as in our case, being required to take the time) to generate ideas about their work. Despite some resistance, everyone contributed to the 25-page document that got generated.

Lesson Two – The mere act of taking the time to generate ideas led to innovation.

What happened is that some of the staff generated an idea, wrote it on their list, but also thought, “Hey, I should try to do that.” And they did! There were 3 or 4 small-scale innovations instituted that fall that happened just through the process of taking time to generate innovative ideas and then getting motivated to implement it.

Lesson Three – The greatest obstacles to innovation are the perceptions, beliefs, and internal resistance that exist within individuals.

A reason I heard several times when I first arrived for why innovation could not occur in the division was that there was no money to innovate. In the years before I had arrived the division had experienced few increases in financial resources and, in fact, had experienced mid-year cuts, so the shared belief across the division was that “we don’t have enough money.” If you do not believe you have enough money to do your regular job, then you definitely do not believe you have money to innovate. So innovation does not occur.

To combat that assumption, in my first semester I scraped together $5000 from budgets across the division and established an Innovation Grant program for the division. [This is another idea I got from Tony Doody.] By having our grant money at the division level, it took unit heads out of the position of having to either say no or having to shift resources from another area to support an innovative idea.

We established the program, distributed the document with all the ideas generated, distributed simple grant applications, and provided staff six weeks to submit their proposals. We received exactly ONE proposal, and it was for about $2000. So, that meant that in a division where the complaint was that there was not enough money, $3000 was left on the table.

There were other things keeping staff rom innovating. This confirmed my belief that the most significant obstacles to innovation are in the minds of staff: the beliefs they hold, the perspectives they have, and their own internal resistance.

Lesson Four – Creating a culture of innovation takes persistence.

The next year, we did something different in order to generate more Innovation Grant applications. A staff member came up with the idea of doing a Pitch Day in October. Staff and units spent September and early October generating ideas. Then, every functional area was required to develop a three-minute pitch of one innovative idea for their work. Following each pitch, the rest of the staff cheered them and provided feedback on the idea. Following that day, the Innovation Grant applications were distributed and people were encouraged to apply. There were 12 pitches at the event and from that group six grant applications were submitted. We (the leadership team served as the selection committee) ended up funding three proposals.

Lesson Five – Innovation does not have to be expensive.

We funded three ideas (A Career Services video series called The Elevator Pitch, Residence Life’s Senior Spirit Program, and Counseling and Wellness’ idea to bring in counseling psychologists who could speak Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic to speak to new international students about counseling services). The total spent was less than $5000.

Just this month we had our second annual Pitch Day. This time there were 22 different proposals presented. The higher quality of the presentations (several included video productions) clearly indicates the degree to which staff are taking the process seriously. It will be interesting to see how many grant proposals we receive this year.

Lesson Six – An organized program of innovation (in this case our Pitch Days and Innovation Grant) appears to encourage innovation beyond those ideas and proposals.

It seems clear that people now understand that innovation is an expectation of their jobs, not something they do in addition to their jobs. There are innovations and innovative programs not related to the grant program popping up in Campus Life, Orientation, Athletics and Recreation, Counseling and Wellness, and Career Services.

There is a downside however…

Lesson Seven – An innovating division puts pressure on other divisions.

This final lesson was a surprise. As new ideas and new and larger programs began to emerge throughout student affairs, this put pressure on other units outside of student affairs, specifically Facilities and Security. Facilities now had to contend with multiple programs in spaces during weekends when the practice had been to do set up on Friday afternoon and breakdown on Monday morning, because there was never more than one program in any particular space. Now we were having multiple programs that meant there were multiple set-ups and breakdowns during a weekend. Students and staff also began to advocated for expanded building hours. Facilities didn’t have the money for staff time AND their staff wasn’t used to working on the weekends. The same thing happened with Security. They needed more people for events and burned through their budget. This created resistance from these units that is still being worked through (though not stopping us from innovating!).

I would be very interested in reactions to these lessons and to hearing from others about their own lessons while generating innovation in their unit or division.


Follow me at @pglove33



One comment

  1. Wow! This is amazing stuff! I’m a recent counseling grad and I’ve decided to transition my focus from clinical work to higher education after having a great experiences as an undergrad and grad internship supervisor (just ordered your book too). The changes you made are inspiring and I hope to be able to do something similar one day. Thanks for sharing!

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