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Tag: innovation

Student Affairs and Innovators DNA

I have been reading a book called The Innovators DNA, and I find myself thinking about how the concepts related to innovation described in this book apply to student affairs. The book’s premise centers around the idea that innovative leaders lead innovative organizations. The book talks about delivery (questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting) and discovery skills (analyzing, planning, detail-oriented implementing, and disciplined executing) used by leaders to find new ideas and convert them to tangible solutions and products. While these discovery skills may be through genetics, they can also be learned by understanding and practicing them.  Innovative leaders, they found to possess more discovery skills, while other leaders (professional managers) have more delivery skills. Dyer, Gregersen, & Christensen (2011), when they interviewed high-level executives, found:

“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. That is, they work inside the box. They shine at converting a vision or goal into specific tasks to achieve the defined goal. They organize work and conscientiously execute logical, detailed,data-driven action plans.” (p. 31)

This passage also notes the difference between innovators and managers.

“The key point here is that large companies typically fail at disruptive innovation because the top management team is dominated by individuals who have been selected for delivery skills, not discovery skills. As a result, most executives at large organizations don’t know how to think differently. It isn’t something they learn within their company, and it certainly isn’t taught in business school. Business schools teach people how to be deliverers, not discoverers.” (p. 36)

 In contrast to the professional managers as described above,  Dyer, et al. (2011) note that disruptive innovators are motivated by these two common themes, “First, they actively desire to change the status quo. Second, they regularly take smart risks to make that change happen.” (p. 24) In addition,  innovative leaders, like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) look to hire those with similar attributes they possess. They build their companies by hiring innovative people, establishing processes that promote innovation (experimentation), and having guiding philosophies that support a culture that encourages employees to try new ideas. These philosophies include 1) innovation is everyone’s job, 2) disruptive innovation is part of our innovation portfolio, 3) deploying lots of small, properly organized innovation project teams, and 4) taking smart risks in pursuing innovation. According to the book, these four guiding philosophies reflect the courage-to-innovate attitudes of innovative leaders.

While Dyer, et al. (2011) focus on disruptive innovators/companies and discovery skills, they do see the value of companies having teams that include members who have delivery skills. Ideally, these teams should consist of members with complementary discovery and delivery skills and those with business, technical, and “human factors” (behavioral sciences) expertise. Collectively, they should be able to view problems from multiple perspectives.

Reading this book with the themes described above led me to the following questions:

– Are student affairs graduate programs designed to prepare future professionals to be “deliverers” and not “discoverers”?

– Is student affairs designed to work within established boundaries (mandates, legal requirements, guidelines, etc.) and within “inside the box”? What are the incentives/punishments for going “outside the box”?

– Are SSAOs more focused on delivery than discovery, and do they hire people with the same philosophies?

– Are the guiding philosophies in student affairs like/unlike those mentioned above regarding innovation?

– Are student affairs professionals generally more “deliverers” than “discoverers”?

What is your take on this topic? Do you agree with the premise of the book?


Christensen, Clayton M.; Jeff Dyer; Hal Gregersen (2011-07-12). The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

Innovathon in Student Affairs

Ideas to solve real-life business issues  can come from anyone in the organization. These ideas need to be heard.  Many blogs and  social business books  discuss the benefits from tapping in the collective knowledge of employees within an organization. Books like The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees and Smart Business, Social Business: A Playbook for Social Media in Your Organization emphasize the idea of  learning, adaptive organization built on collaboration and communities to promote innovations.  The diverse work that we do and the collaborative culture we promote in student affairs leads me to believe I think we should/need look for opportunities to involve all staff in finding ways to improve how we serve students towards their learning and personal development.

One opportunity that comes to mind is to have friendly competitions called “innovathon”. By no means is this idea new or unique. Companies such as Facebook and Google have hackathons designed for fun and social purpose but also with the goal of producing usable products. Universities like UCSB have contests for budding entrepreneurs to build new products/services.  While not a novel idea, I think it does provide some tangible benefits Here are some initial thoughts on this concept:


To promote sharing of ideas from any/all student affairs employees (staff, students) with the end goal of solving actual business problems.


  • Coaches/Mentors   – These could be Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) or those familiar with university processes. Their role is primarily to guide the individuals/teams and serve as resources. They should have minimal input on the ideas themselves.  The ideas need to come from fresh or different set of perspectives.
  • Teams  – These teams shall consist of student workers and professional staff (number of team members can vary).
  • Selection Panel  – A panel consisting of students/staff responsible for the initial and final selection of ideas/products  to be implemented.
  • Executive Project Sponsor – Vice Chancellor or a SSAO.


  • Development of innovative but implementable products & services
  • Provide students and staff insight on how the university process works as part of their professional development.
  • Opportunity to work with other employees/students  in the division beyond the scope of their job responsibilities.
  • Opportunity to work with senior executives and managers (coaches) which could lead to mentor/mentee relationships.
  • Morale booster for the organization and those involved.

Required Resources:

  • Funding to implement selected ideas.
  • Department’s approval for employees to work on their projects.


  • Invitation to the competition will be communicated to the organization  (email, social media, posters). Invitation will include rules and guidelines.
  • Teams submit a proposal (general description) of their ideas and submit it via email to the selection panel.
  • Selection panel reviews and choose ideas to be considered for further evaluation phase.
  • Selected teams and their proposals are assigned coaches. The teams will be provided some time (tbd) to work on their ideas and prepare for a presentation.
  • Selected teams will present their proposals to the selection panel and the Executive Project Sponsor.

I hope the general concept  shared in this post can spur some creative opportunities for your organization.  I would love to know if you have done a similar concept in your organization or if you could add more details to the ideas in this post.


Facebook as a Model for Business Agility?

The agility at which facebook can make changes is something I can admire. In creating company this big, facebook is not going to please everyone, but led by Mark Zuckerberg who at times is faulted for his naivete because of his young age – he has optimism and energy on his side. As a line in the Social Network movie says “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Facebook, in my mind, represents a new breed of consumer-driven organization who must continually adapt at a very high rate of change to satisfy their stakeholders. I realize that arguments have been made that facebook changes are made for the sake of revenue and to maximize advertising, etc and not for the sake of customers. That is most likely true. However, even with that argument, I think that facebook must make changes that will not completely upset its customer base as revenue would then suffer. Consider the following quotes attributed to another brilliant innovator, Steve Jobs:

  • “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”
  • “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

Apple and Facebook, led by these two innovators are probably rare companies in that they are able to define their products and services to whatever visions they have set, making mistakes along the way, yet are able to survive and even thrive.

As a facebook user, I sometimes get annoyed with the changes. Specifically with the latest ones released yesterday which makes the site looks very cluttered with all the different functions I can’t even name. It’s beginning to remind me of the cluttered myspace. However, as someone who is in a technology leadership position at a university, I sometimes envy how facebook can seemingly introduce changes overnight without having to go through committee approvals. This is not to say that the need for approval process and committees are all bad given security, policy and legal constraints that must be considered when introducing new technologies like social media. It is those instances when “paralysis by over analysis” cripple a project that bothers me a lot. Finding balance between making sure we are not introducing high risk but at the same time have the room to innovate is a challenge.

One of the guiding principles I have applied in my career is from a mentor I admire so much, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs  at UCSB – Dr. Michael Young. He told me way back when I was just starting my career that “I’d rather have you continually moving forward, making mistakes along the way, than stagnate.

One of the challenges I face at work (and life) is determining when to apply the principle of  “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”.  Looking back at what I have been able to accomplish throughout the years as a developer dating back to 1998 with our university’s campus calendar of events to the numerous applications I’ve built after, I wonder how much of it I would have even built if I had to ask for permission and if I had to prove the value of every single one of them every single time.

Do you agree/disagree with the idea that universities can learn from facebook or are we just different organizational models with different goals, stakeholders and customers?

Innovation – Using the Energy of Youth and Optimism

When the US Ryder Cup won at Valhalla in 2008, many attributed the win to the energy of the new team members.  The fact that some of the members never felt the experience of losing to the Europeans in previous Ryder Cup events, to some, also was a major factor in the US win. I have also heard from time to time how as we grow older, we seem to lose our sense of wonder, amazement at how the world works and we make things more complicated than things should be, maybe even more cynical. In some ways,  I see this happening in the workplace. There is no question that a sense of perspective based on years of experience, institutional knowledge,  provides a great compass in how we should move forward. It is through institutional knowledge that pitfalls can be avoided based on lessons learned from the past.  However, solely relying on the past to guide any actions moving forward, when taken to extreme, stifles innovation.

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