Building Innovation Momentum: Little Steps Can Yield Big Results

We just completed four days of Creative Problem Solving(CPS) workshops for about 80 people from across all of Xavier University. They represent 8 different cross-functional teams being asked to develop solutions to some vital problems we face at Xavier that can ONLY be effectively solved with a cross-silo effort.  This is a kind of revolutionary idea for us.


Here are some of the ideas our teams are focused on solving:

  • Developing new sources of non-traditional revenue
  • Increasing student retention
  • Improving scholarship efforts among faculty across campus
  • Developing strategic partnerships with external organizations
  • Increasing student engagement
  • Improving learning and teaching across campus

These are important problems that require considerable thought, and they flow from the University’s strategic plan.

In the past, we would have approached these kinds of questions in one of two ways –

1)      Someone at the executive level would launch an initiative (a top-down approach)

2)      We would form a committee to study the problem and make recommendations

I would say that the latter approach has been perhaps more common.   But these kinds of efforts are not always effective to the  point where people dread being asked to serve on a committee – as it is likely to consume precious time, and yield no or few positive outcomes.  Sound familiar?   You know the drill. The committee meets for an hour every other week – assigns “homework” to the committee members and keeps the discussion alive.   The meetings go on for months on end, and in the end the committee makes modest recommendations and it is somewhat unclear who is ultimately responsible for approving and enacting anything.   (At Xavier, we sometimes “trip” over our own organizational design that is highly compartmentalized.  We also sometimes trip over our own culture which is collaborative in nature – which means we value a process where everyone’s voice is heard, but we are perhaps better at listening and talking about it, than we are at deciding and “pulling the trigger” to actually launch it.)

I am sure Xavier is not alone in this pattern of behavior, and I have seen it in quite a number of both public and private sector organizations.

What’s different (and exciting) about our new approach.

What’s happening at Xavier today is pretty remarkable (at least I think so) and borders on revolutionary for us.   Here’s what’s different.

1)      Senior Executive involvement (and interest).  This process began for us with a conversation I had with our Provost (the University equivalent of a COO).  I was telling him about the program offerings XLC was planning in the innovation arena.  He thought it sounded interesting.  We then did a 2.5 day CPS workshop for him and his top 25 executives from across campus.  At the end of that workshop. He and a number of his colleagues saw this as potentially a game changing approach for Xavier, and this led to the creation of our 8 cross functional teams I mentioned earlier.  Since them, either the Provost or the Associate Provost sat through and actively participated in the following workshops we led for the 8 teams.  Participants instantly recognized this as an IMPORTANT activity.

2)      Intense, focused work – rather than protracted committee sessions.  Rather than engage in committee work that spans many months, we decided instead to ask our teams to come together with focused energy for 2 days to try and create some worthy new ideas.   The power of allowing people to disengage from their “day jobs” for two days to wrap their heads around our various focus areas was huge.  Some participants were amazed by the amount of real progress that was made in that short time.  (This helps us make a cultural shift that now suggests that solving wicked problems that are of strategic importance to our institution IS PART OF OUR DAY JOB.)

3)      Who Wants to Own this? An interesting thing happened at the end of the very first CPS workshop.   Over the 2.5 days, we had developed about 200 ideas which we whittled down to about 16 and then we converged around about 8 ideas (project initiatives) that most people felt were solid, and would make a huge difference at Xavier.   Then the Provost stood up to offer his concluding remarks wherein he thanked people for their participation, reminded them as to the importance of the task, and then congratulated them for coming up with some powerful ideas.   Next. He stated that it was not his intent to drive these ideas down from above, but rather asked us “Who wants to own” any of these ideas – to take them forward and be project champions?   We were invited to vote with our feet and walk up to the posters on the side of the room that we would like to work on. Everyone knew then and there – that he was looking to empower anyone who was ready to lead.   In the end, five of these ideas had groups of owners with passion for the ideas that would show in the coming weeks.   I was one of the implementation team members for one initiative, and we worked together to create a clear statement of purpose, a business case, a pro-forma budget, and detailed description of how we imagined it could all work.   The Provost is currently pursuing our funding request.

4)      Be Bold!  Why Wait?  There is always some trepidation at Xavier (and indeed many other organizations that do not have a bias-for-action culture) to launch an initiative before it is fully developed and perfected (and until all possible risks have been mitigated).  This approach may be safer, but also takes more time – something that is precious when the world around you is changing rapidly.  Another way of thinking about it is this:  If you are clear about your goals and purpose, and believe that any idea moves us forward in the right direction, why not go ahead and begin?     You can always improve upon the idea in the future as you gain experience and learn from experimentation, or add other ideas alongside it.     Sometimes many little steps can yield big results.  They build innovation momentum.  At the end of one session, when the participants were asking for some guidance on where they should go next with their initiatives, the Provost announced to the room.   “If you have a good idea that doesn’t need special new funding, or violates established rules there is no reason to delay!  Let’s get started.”  This is another subtle call for culture shift at Xavier – a bias for action.

5)      Effective Process (and facilitation). All of the CPS session we facilitated produced some interesting new ideas. Our participants were fully engaged, willing to let go of some established paradigms, and willing to take the Provost at his word. . . “bold ideas are good”, he said.   Part of the successful results came from the use of a proven process led by globally experienced professionals who guided the activities at every step along the way.   These innovation guides (who teach this method through XLC), were continually changing the planned assignments during each workshop as they observed where each team was, and where people were getting “stuck”.   This expertise was invaluable.

It is not clear where all this will lead for us at Xavier, as only time will tell.   However I have noticed walking around campus that there are visible signs of progress.  The spirit of cross-departmental collaboration has never been stronger (since I came to Xavier).  I came into one conference room in the Williams College of Business to notice a full wall of post-it notes from a past meeting.   (Someone had borrowing one of the ideation techniques they learned during a past workshop.)   We are working together differently, and there are many exciting conversations focusing on what could be.

Other References:

How NYC Schools is Systematizing Innovation, by Len Brzozowski, Xavier Leadership Center

Most Innovative Schools, by Len Brzozowski, Xavier Leadership Center

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition, by Dr. Wayne Fisher, XLC Innovation Guide

Creative Productivity & The Creative Theorists – Part 1, by Lisa Canning, Innovating through Artistry



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