How college boards can prioritize innovation

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After a year of high-speed innovation forced by the pandemic, college boards of directors and management teams are asking: how can we continue to innovate? And is our governance up to the task?

This year of disruption has reminded us that innovation should be part of a board’s main agenda, not a side dish. Other priorities are often more urgent and easier to define, so that discussions about innovation are easily sidelined. We owe it to our stakeholders to do better.


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College boards should focus on three elements of innovation: strategy, perspective and culture.

How college boards can focus on innovation

Strategy

Most organizations are proud of their strategic plans. They are our inspiring and practical roadmap for stakeholders and staff. We’re tracking progress, highlighting red areas to turn around and green areas to celebrate. Those of us subject to Ofsted need to improve and we obsess over the measurements year after year.

However, long-term innovation is difficult to measure, difficult to plan and rarely prioritized by regulators. This is one of the greatest leadership challenges, but too many strategic plans are better in words than in actions.

How often do we review our strategy? Some boards only review strategic plans every three years. A semi-annual review is the least one can expect in a world of rapidly evolving opportunities and threats.

How much are we investing in innovation? Budgets are tighter than ever and few organizations can invest 2-3% of their total budget in pure innovation. But if we could, what would we invest it in? Good advice puts pressure on operational budgets so that they can invest for the long term. If the budgetary costs and benefits only have a horizon of one or two years, we are only managing, not leading.

Perspective

We need to challenge ourselves to keep a perspective on the organization from the outside. We know that diverse teams produce better long-term results, but only if we tap into each other’s cultures and experiences. A board of directors is a team with a particular obligation to refresh its point of view on a regular basis.

Are we honestly comparing ourselves to the market and looking for collaborators? Boards often want to be the market leaders in some aspect of their strategy. It’s less common to see boards of directors looking at other organizations, inside and outside their industry, to learn, collaborate and accelerate.

Do we hear directly from customers and users of the service? Along with the front line staff, they will give an honest read on what sets us apart and what holds us back.

Culture

For those of us in education, our best times are when we see the leaps in knowledge, skills, and confidence in our students. We expect our teachers and speakers to be inspiring in the classroom – a particularly difficult challenge over the past 12 months.

Do we expect the same of ourselves as leaders in the boardroom? Are the debates of our board of directors sparkling with inspiration? Do we accept the pros and cons of risk, with risk registers including failure to innovate?

Are we learning enough when things don’t go as planned? If we trust the skills of our team, can we resist pointing the finger of blame, and instead asking “what have we learned?”

Innovation needs to be in the boardroom as much as on the front line. We have to work hard to give it space, not just for incremental improvements, but to lead for the long haul.

Pablo Lloyd OBE is Co-Founder of Capital City College Group and Managing Director of Social Enterprise Visionaries


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