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Permeable Leadership: The route to innovation in university practice

  • 22 September 2022
  • By Mary Stuart

Over the next 10 weeks, HEPI will be running a series of leadership blogs in partnership with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE). For more than 10 years, NCEE have run leadership development programmes for higher education to support creativity, innovation and the management of change.

The first blog in the series has been kindly provided by Professor Mary Stuart CBE, Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln, Board Director of NCEE and Director of Leadership Development at Minerva UK. Mary is also a member of HEPI’s Advisory Board.

The 2022 NCEE Leadership Survey set out what university leaders were worried about. It particularly highlighted that universities had been facing continual change and complex challenges, and dealing with uncertainty and further rapid change were found to be the most significant issues institutions face. Look at any theory of leadership and there is always a section on change and innovation. It is almost as though innovation is seen as the Holy Grail to deal with change but seldom do the same books or articles set out why innovation is so important or why it is often seen as so difficult to create an innovative culture. Based on over 30 years in higher education with some time now to reflect, not just do, I have developed some thoughts which I hope may go some way to answering some of these questions and provide some sort of a model which leaders could adapt and use in their own specific circumstances to create and sustain innovation in their institutions. 

Is innovation all that it is cracked up to be?

There are several misconceptions about what, in fact, innovation actually is, so it is worth exploring the concept a bit further before going on to discuss its value and purpose and how to implement it in a university environment. 

There is a tendency for the literature to connect innovation and technology in discussions about models of change. Clearly, technology can have a significant impact on activities and practice and can lead to innovation but, if badly designed or implemented, can create unnecessary costs and additional bureaucracy. The key to good innovation is that it leads to better productivity; better work practice; and better delivery of activities. In planning any change, it is important to understand how the innovation that you wish to introduce will deliver those three things: better productivity, better practice and better delivery. 

Innovation is also often seen as a big bang ‘thing’. This is not necessarily the case, small improvements or minor changes can have significant effects, so thinking through possible impacts or trialling change in discreet areas to understand impact is important. Finally, innovation is often associated with ‘the new’, but sometimes a new innovation in one organisation is, in fact, not so new in another environment but it is still valid and useful and, often, having seen the idea work on a different context, can be helpful to plan more effectively.

Barriers to innovation

So, sitting at the heart of successful implementation of a novel idea or process is understanding what you want to achieve and making sure that the people who are involved and will be affected by it also understand and feel involved in the implementation. In other words, innovation can only happen, and, more importantly, stick, if the people want it. It is the people in organisations who can enable or disable change and innovation. Sometimes there are specific practices and taken-for-granted behaviours that limit the chance of success for innovation.

Fear of change is a major barrier that organisations face when seeking to bring in a new way of doing things or a new approach or method of practice. This fear is often based on previous experience by the people concerned, including experience of poor implementation, seeing new practices brought in that create job losses or innovations that are costly which do not seem to have a purpose. Making sure there is a clear rationale and a clear plan for ensuring value and benefit which is clearly explained and discussed is vital. It is important to expect to spend time planning and discussing before implementation, working to bring people on board so they can see how they fit within the change. 

But perhaps the important thing I have learned is to make change and innovation expected and necessary. That, for me, is what an innovation culture in an organisation is. Ensuring that colleagues just know that external and internal change are the nature of the world of work. This requires building a sense of confidence in colleagues across the organisation that they can develop in this kind of environment and that requires building trust between people. 

Permeable leadership

Over the years, one of the things that I have found has helped me anchor change into the DNA of an organisation is to work across boundaries at all levels of the university. Seeing students as partners in the development not just of curriculum but the organisation itself. Listening and working with students in every department and school of study and especially in senior leadership to help drive change. Students bring that outside eye and fresh approach to practice, and, if given space to work through solutions with university staff, can come up with innovations, small and large, to help transform the university for good. This approach sits at the heart of the idea of the student manifesto proposed by the Student Futures Commission, which I had the privilege to work on as a commissioner. The manifesto principle sees students setting out with staff what a post-pandemic reset should be at any university. It is bringing fresh eyes to ‘wicked problems’ and finding solutions together: in other words, breaking down barriers between staff and students and making the relationship more permeable than ever before. 

Equally, over the years I have found working with colleagues from other organisations outside the university hugely insightful, sometimes challenging of our practice, but always offering new and different solutions to our processes and activities. Working with other organisations in the place of the university to solve issues of that place is a major element of the work undertaken by the Civic University Commission which, again, I had the pleasure of working on as a commissioner. This practice of working across boundaries between different organisations all interested in a place or in issues of significance to people in a region is a ‘whole systems approach’ to looking at problems and challenges and will often throw up innovations by drawing on different perspectives. This is another example of permeable approaches to leadership. 

If permeability and working across boundaries is embedded in an organisation, that can form the bedrock of a culture of innovation and enable good debate and discussion to create strong ideas and implementation of valuable change which will benefit the university for years to come. At its heart is the recognition that your organisation is never static but has a diverse, changing and engaged team that will support and sustain the organisation into the future. That is how we can make the most of innovation in our organisations.

Separately, HEPI has today published a new Policy Note on leadership:Thirty years on: Leadership convergence between newer and older universities

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  1. Wise words indeed. And as a further observation on ‘barriers to innovation’, these are to be found in Arthur Koestler’s ‘The Sleepwalkers’:

    ‘The inertia of the human mind and its resistance to innovation are most clearly demonstrated not, as one might expect, by the ignorant mass – which is easily swayed once its imagination is caught – but by professionals with a vested interest in tradition, and in the monopoly of learning. Innovation is a two-fold threat to academic mediocrities: it endangers their oracular authority, and it evokes the deeper fear that their whole laboriously-constructed intellectual edifice might collapse. The academic backwoodsmen have been the curse of genius from Aristarchus to Darwin and Freud: they stretch, a solid and hostile phalanx across the centuries. It was this threat – not Bishop Dantiscus or Pope Paul III – which had cowed Canon Koppernigk into lifelong silence. In Galileo’s case, the phalanx resembled more a rearguard – but a rearguard still firmly entrenched in academic chairs and preachers’ pulpits.’

  2. andy penaluna says:

    Mary makes some excellent points here, especially with regards to seeing beyond the boundaries of single disciplines or subject areas. As England has yet to engage schools in learning for innovation through enterprise, they have yet to consider this aspect of educator development. However, in Wales this has started, and we are learning much about the new roles of Universities and the type of support required when working beyond barriers – ones that don’t need to be barriers at all, but gateways to new and innovative learning.

  3. Professor Peter Rolf Lutzeier says:

    Permeability across vertical and horizontal structures is important in any organisation, but so are also the boundaries amongst different groups. And this applies in a university particularly to students.
    Another possible constraint to consider are the long term principles and values which make an organisation unique.

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