Innovation and Change: Why Bother?


In 2006, I accepted a leadership position at UNC to which Hotline, Labs, and Classroom Design reported. Our charter was to do great things and be agents of change. Despite the great expectations attached to the new role, it was difficult to imagine getting everyone in the organization to agree to even a modest change for very long. 

Our budget enabled me to enlist a consultant, and so I hired the best I could find: George Smart of Strategic Development, who infused me and my excellent management team with an alternate perspective on leadership, organizational development and change management.

For our first project, we transitioned the UNC campus from "free printing" to swipe-and-release printing. Various ITS units had made abortive attempts over the previous six years, each time arguing that it could not be accomplished for the lack of "political will." (That's what is said when one can't coerce the Chancellor to do your dirty work and issue a decree.)

Using George's philosophy (calling it a "technique" might mislead you to think we engaged in some kind of trickery, when in fact, we were inclusive and transparent at all levels throughout the project) we accomplished a successful transition in 90-days that was heralded by the student government and, more importantly, the student newspaper as a timely success. First-year savings exceeded $1M. It was the first of several successful initiatives.

The Context: The Call for Innovation

There, I fixed it!

Last Fall, we presented two areas that merit outside-the-box thinking: simplified classroom technology and projector lifecycle strategies. We challenged you to reject the status quo and to adopt a more active role to overcome the daunting challenges (technical as well as process-oriented challenges). 

At the time, we neglected to provide a framework for successfully re-thinking these areas. This first installment shares some observations rooted in the process for change that we developed with George Smart. It concludes with a few simple steps to help get started so that you can begin to make change-that-sticks in your organization.

Why is lasting change elusive?

Our mission is to continue to efficiently facilitate diverse methods of empowerment and professionally disseminate performance-based deliverables to meet our customers' needs.

Few quarters exist in which administrations do not routinely entreat the masses to "be more innovative, harr-rumph!" The results of such sloganeering often fall short of over-hyped expectations and those that achieve measurable progress rarely hold their ground. Why is that?

1. People cannot be expected to innovate-on-demand. In the trenches, line managers and their reports shake their heads and quietly dismiss such campaigns as "someone's bright idea," perhaps an oblique suggestion that the special "someone" in question is neither bright, nor known to be a fountain of higher cognition.

Dibert_open_source - 1st frame.png

2. The problem is not that the staff are not "team players." This is not to say that innovation itself is pop-business-school puffery. Genuine innovation (yes, it does exist outside of Apple) is real and life-changing, however, expecting to achieve it by decree may indicate somewhat simplistic views of leadership and organizational development. [From the Editor: In the spirit of full-disclosure, the author has personally confessed to numerous transgressions in this regard.]

3. Innovation necessitates personal change (and occasionally, spare-change). Real change requires moving from a place that is known (predictable and comfortable) to (what may seem to be) an other-worldly realm of uncertainty. Bad conditions tend to persist not because folks just love dysfunction and inefficiency, but because of the unexpressed fear of the proposed alternate universe. "Sure, things are bad now, but they could be a whole lot worse…"

My manager told me to put something on this board.

4. We value knowing why something ought to be changed, and especially why we should put forth the effort (or stick our necks out) to make it happen. Why do things differently? What is so bad about the way things are?

5. Organizations are conditioned by the consi

stent failures of top-down e
dicts. When change comes by decree, such as through "new policy" or reorganization, it rarely lasts. (When it does last, it rarely produces the expected outcome). The masses shake their heads and mumble, "Why bother? They (the new administration) will get bored and move on to some other hair-brained idea in a week or two."

SkepticDog is skeptical

6. Buy-in cannot be coerced. If grumbling and foot-dragging could be neatly translated, we might hear our people say, "Change is difficult, especially when it requires me to change something I'm comfortable with. If I'm going to put myself out, there ought to be a compelling reason, else why should I bother at all?" The masses cannot move in unison without understanding a) what is broken; and b) what would a future-state look like with the problem eradicated.

How can I start practicing change agency in my own shop?

A bright idea

Line managers and their staff are expert problem-solvers who live to sink their teeth into a real challenge. So, when we present a pre-digested solution (however well-thought-out) without vetting the problem and priorities, we devalue their critical contribution to day-to-day organizational success. 

Avoid suggesting all-you-gotta-do-is -type solutions. Such simplifications are what get most organizations into the acute pickles they now ignore (until the next bright idea).

1. Instead of delivering marching orders, present your top-three headaches (you'll want to begin with an exhaustive list that you can prioritize) and the unfortunate consequences of those headaches. (Be sure to present your case clearly, leaving no room for misinterpretation.) 

2. Without suggesting a solution, describe what their world would be like in the absence of that problem. Be sure to seek their confirmation that that the problems you described are valid (most groups can agree on a problem, it is the solution that causes all the trouble.)

3. Ask the open-ended question, "what would need to happen to get from point-A to point-B in X-weeks?" and take note.

Use these observations as conversation-starters in your own organization and, by all means, report back to us via the forum or in the comments at the end of this article and let us know the conditions on the ground at your org.

No, the taxi ride from the airport was not un-bearable, actually.  

by Joe SchuchFollow me on Twitter
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

One thought on “Innovation and Change: Why Bother?”

  1. Hi Joe, I’d like to share with you a Peter Senge quote that’s been on my wall for 14 years:
    “Many who are otherwise qualified to lead fail to do so because they try to substitute analysis for vision. They believe that, if only people understood current reality, they would surely feel the motivation to change. They are then disappointed to discover that people “resist” the personal and organizational changes that must be made to alter reality. What they never grasp is that the natural energy for changing reality comes from holding a picture of what might be that is more important to people than what is.”(end of quote)
    So my question is, “What vision can administration hold before an academic cost center like IT/AV to inspire us to rise to ‘change’ occasions?” Just about all the individual college AV practioners I know would sacrifice a great deal to satisfy the support needs of an individual faculty member or guest. We have vision for helping others. Most cost saving changes administrations want have nothing to do with furthering this vision. Bring cost centers like IT/AV to a place at the table, a place we deserve, and the changes admins want will flourish in an incubator of interdependency.

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