Ask any college or university leader whether there are too few or too many good ideas to execute, and they will say the latter is more often true. So long as higher education continues to attract smart and ambitious people committed to making change in the world, promising ideas for new programs, courses, curriculum, and teaching practices will always abound. There’s just something in the water.
But can there ever be too many good ideas? As I wrote previously, innovation thrives in an environment of creative disruption where all members of the organization, including faculty, have space to generate and raise ideas. However, leaders must also be able to prioritize between competing ideas and channel the focus of the organization into a limited set of new ventures. Too many new ideas in motion at once can lead to staff and leader burnout and loosen the organization from its strategic moorings.
Leaders need a framework and process for choosing between promising ideas. One university’s simple three-step approach can provide just that model. The provost office at Tufts University created a three-step criteria for knowing if a faculty-submitted idea is worth pursuing. According to the charter of Tufts’ Program Development & Approval Committee, only ideas that “ fit our mission,  promise to be sustainable, and  do not duplicate other efforts within the university” will receive funding and grow into programs. Let’s unpack each of these steps in more detail.
Does it fit the mission?
Understanding if a new idea fits within the mission of the institution is potentially the most difficult of the three steps. New ideas tend to grow quickly, and their shiny allure can easily obscure the original reason or intent for which they were created. A leader can refocus the attention of the group by asking how the idea fits with the fundamental mission of the organization.
Quite simply, an institution’s mission is what the organization was created todo. Does an accounting program produce hair stylists? Does a college of music turn out agronomists? Missions are often described in fewer words rather than more. Thus, taking a step back to see the idea from a 30,000-foot level can produce new insights for decision-making. Consider these tactics:
- Ask those behind the idea to describe it in a one-page document. Better yet, ask them to do it in a 140-character tweet. Then print out the written mission statement of the institution and compare the two side-by-side.
- Imagine you have created the new program or initiative already. Write a press release announcing its creation. Reflect on whether the idea sounds like it meets the organization’s mission.
- Record a 1-minute video explanation of the idea or program. Send it to an ad hoc panel of students to ask for their feedback.
Simplifying will help bring clarity and perspective to decision-making. If the idea seems solid, additional layers of detail can then be added.
Is It Sustainable?
Second, the best ideas should be sustainable. Obviously, predicting the future is a fraught endeavor, but ideas can be made to show sustainability through testing. Pilot testing is an excellent way to test new concepts for feasibility. So is performing a peer comparison of how ideas have fared at similar institutions. Proving concepts now with a small amount of energy may help conserve a larger amount of energy for later.
Another sign of sustainability is whether the idea is filling a market need. The best ideas start, first, with identifying a need and then how to solve it, rather than creating a solution and searching for a need. For example, one humanities dean at a mid-sized private university in the South shared how a faculty member raised the idea of a digital storytelling degree. The dean waited on the idea for several years, not sure if a demand existed for this type of program. Then, while browsing LinkedIn she came across multiple job postings for digital storytellers in their local metro area. This was enough of a demand signal to convince her to create such a program. While this dean ultimately made the right decision, she also lost several years in development time by waiting to see what jobs appeared on the market. Perhaps a better approach would have been to gather market data by speaking with employers about what jobs they anticipated needing in coming years or testing the concept in small ways with a single course or certificate program.
Does It Duplicate Existing Efforts?
Lastly, leaders should consider whether an idea is duplicating other efforts on campus. Imitation is the highest form of flattery but not within the same organization. Removing duplication sounds easy enough, right? Every year the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) publishes a report on federal government duplication, and the total potential savings for removing duplication equals more than $400 billion. In many ways, universities face the same challenge, with decentralized programs and far-flung reach. The left hand often does not know what the right is doing.
Unlike mid-level leaders who are incentivized to retain programs under their control, senior campus leaders are in the best position to identify duplicate efforts. Here are a few questions leaders can ask to ensure new ideas are not overlapping with existing programs:
- Has any program like this been attempted before?
- If so, can any part of previous efforts be recycled and used again?
- If this program were already happening, where would it take place?
- Who knows the most about this subject on campus?
For leaders, following through on these three criteria is not easy but worth the trouble. What other criteria do you use to choose between promising ideas? What practices have you seen effective leaders use? In next month’s column, we’ll explore one of the most difficult parts of the innovation process: how to say ‘no’ to good ideas without squashing the creativity of faculty and staff.