Hunting Unicorns, the Holy Grail and Woozles: The Search for Innovative Talent in Research Universities and Beyond

by Richard A Skinner
January 12, 2012

Other fabulous beasts are clearly inventions existing only in a mythical landscape of our own collective creation. But the Unicorn strikes us as more than imaginary. It seems possible, even probable – a creature so likely that it ought to exist. - Nancy Hathaway

It is all but an axiom: innovation is the process that provides an edge, even and perhaps most of all in turbulent times. As one participant noted in a 2007 McKinsey online discussion, “Quality and customer service are no longer differentiators, but rather prerequisites. Innovation is the best strategic decision for sustainable competitive advantage.”

A February 2009 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit carried out with the support of the government of Ontario, Canada, revealed “that innovation is the single most important predictor of future growth, and that access to talented staff is critical for innovation.”

Corporate executives embrace the notion and establish C-level “chief innovation officers” with mandates to foster a culture in which new or at least different ideas for products and services are coin of the realm.

Reformers mourn the drill-and-practice rote learning that often typifies much of education and point to the contrast between the unrestrained curiosity and inventiveness of pre-schoolers, on the one hand, and the solemnity and obvious control that characterizes Grades 1-n, on the other hand.

“Thinking outside the box” and “coloring outside the lines” become pleas that launch “brain-storming” sessions for organizations as diverse as Fortune 500 firms, city councils, not-for-profits, and church auxiliaries. Were the film “The Graduate” remade today, the one word of advice given the protagonist would not be “plastics” but “innovation”.

So how does one go about embedding innovation in an organization? Creating a culture of innovation seems essential, but to get to the point where culture can be addressed requires that at least some members of the organization are themselves innovators. How do you get about the task of identifying and recruiting this kind of talent?

We focus our work on assisting research-intensive universities, academic health and medical centers and university research parks to recruit executives and senior scholars, clinicians and researchers. In the US, these are the sorts of organizations looked to as major sources of research, the findings of which often serve as the bases of innovation.

The sector as a whole and in terms of how it operates is seldom viewed as particularly innovative. As the late George Keller noted, only two institutions have survived intact since the Middle Ages – the Catholic Church and universities, both of which are known for (among other attributes) lovely but often under-utilized buildings, a love for tradition and skepticism toward calls for large-scale institutional change.

Increasingly, however, critics and friends of higher education alike are asking whether and how the existing structures and modus operandi can be improved, and some voices call for major change. And while we do not yet hear choruses for transforming higher education in toto, we do hear from prospective and actual higher education clients an acknowledgement that some sorts of change are required and that change would be more likely to succeed if it comes about through a process of innovation driven from within those institutions.

Our task, then, is to identify individuals who are themselves capable of fostering innovation but who also know how to manage both the process of innovation and the people who will ultimately determine the success of any innovation. The task can be daunting, requiring that we find persons who share and embrace the values of the academy but understand and are prepared to act on the need for its change. We have some insights to share and we think they have relevance and applicability beyond higher education.

“I’m all for innovation so long as nothing changes”

Bridgekeeper: What is your quest?
Sir Robin: To seek the Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What is the capital of Assyria?
Sir Robin: I don’t know that.
(He is thrown into the smoldering volcano.)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

As important as innovation has become, its track record for and within most organizations is less than awe-inspiring. As long ago as the 16th Century Machiavelli observed:

[T]here is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.

As a result, one group of researchers reports that“[t]here are no best-practice solutions to feed and cultivate innovation” nor has anyone to date come up with a dowsing rod or Geiger counter-like device for locating innovative persons to populate companies and organizations. And the debate over whether innovators are born or can be developed is by no means resolved.

Seldom is there a scarcity of ideas, especially in a university. But new ideas – inventions, if you will – are not innovation but more akin to Einstein’s description of hypotheses, i.e., “bloodless things” that - in and of themselves - cannot effect meaningful organizational change.

By contrast, innovation entails bringing new ideas into play, going beyond the ideas and, in entrepreneurial fashion, using them to solve problems by enlisting the attention and support of others within an organization. However compelling the image of the solitary inventor may be, innovation is ultimately a social enterprise that involves some of the key elements of contemporary leadership, regardless of the sector, including:

  1. making connections between what may appear to some, perhaps most other people as disparate ideas from domains other than those seen as directly pertinent to the organization;
  2. encouraging speculation on what the idea could mean to the organization and how it might be applied;
  3. experimenting with the idea’s application and being open to learning from failure as well as to capitalizing on potential; and
  4. engaging frequently with people and ideas outside the organization and its general domain.

Elements 1 and 4 are almost intrinsic to the work of research university presidents as they make sense to themselves and others within and outside the institution of the complex array of activities undertaken in what Michael Cohen and James March described in 1974 as the “organized anarchy” of the American research university. Furthermore, presidents’ time is increasingly external and much of it is given over to making sense and demonstrating the relevance of the work of the institution to a public not nearly so enamored by higher education as was once the case.

That leaves elements 2 and 3 and the record of university presidents as a whole is not one of proposing “what if’s” as they potentially relate to the internal operations of the institution or promoting trial runs to see what results might be produced. This is due, we suspect, because the American research university is perceived by inhabitants and observers alike as the “gold standard” and therefore not requiring much in the way of experimentation.

One notable exception is President Michael Crow of Arizona State University. Concerned by the “disconnect” of research universities from a broader public purpose,

Crow tries lots of strategies. At ASU, the nation's youngest major research institution and the largest university governed by a single administration, one of four campuses is a polytechnic that emphasizes practical experience and direct entry into the workforce. Online teaching platforms leverage the faculty's reach. Accelerated curricula shorten the time required for a degree. Crow encourages employees to float and test ideas. At Columbia and ASU, he has pulled professors out of departmental silos and assembled them in multidisciplinary institutes where they share insights and different ways of thinking to solve complex challenges. He also builds collaborative networks with industry so that researchers can turn their work into useful products or processes, and through "academic enterprise" generate revenue for the university.

But Crow is the exception. The women and men who end up presiding over research universities are usually products of those kinds of institutions, and presidents generally embrace the mission, goals and methods of R1s. And while the lay people who serve as the universities’ board members may have doubts and misgivings about the ways in which the organizations operate, the search process for securing the services of a new president accord many within the university a sizable voice on the types of experiences seen as pertinent and they are apt to select those whose backgrounds conform closest to their own. The result is that new presidents are not likely to challenge the structures and processes that, after all, produced them.

Then there is the position of Vice President for Research, whose occupants seldom exercise much if any direct authority over the researchers and scholars for whom vice presidents are nevertheless expected to provide leadership. Notwith-standing the importance of research, vice presidents often occupy a limbo-like space within universities. At best, these roles are akin to orchestra conductors, seldom playing on their own metaphorical instruments but nevertheless trying to gain optimal performance from the loose assortment of researchers-cum-players as a whole and still permit the more gifted or accomplished individuals virtuoso opportunities. And thanks to tenure, the option rarely exists to unseat less productive members of the research “symphony.”

At worst, research vice presidents’ roles can be more like well-paid managers responsible for insuring the grants and attendant reports are submitted on time, on the right forms and in the correct formats but very little in the way of creative innovation in terms of content or the processes of research.

But vice presidents for research can have impact and our experience tells us that those who do are persons able to see convergence and synergy between and among what otherwise appear to be unconnected lines of inquiry and can bring researchers together and foster processes that help the researchers themselves “connect the dots” between their respective areas of research.

Effective research vice presidents are also able to create and tell a story to presidents, provosts and deans that effectively links existing or emerging areas of research strength among faculty and academic units such that the whole becomes much more than the sum of the parts. Such narratives are, at once, deceptively simple and remarkably powerful in making sense of the abundant activity that typifies the research enterprise. The storyteller, then, is an innovator who faces the task of sustaining that tale, usually without much in the way of resources to make it happen.

Pooh was walking round and round in a circle...
“Hello!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Hunting what?”
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer...
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh. “Now look there.” He pointed to the ground in front of him. “What do you see there?”
“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a-a-a Woozle?”
"It may be," said Pooh. "Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. You never can tell with paw marks."
With these few words he went on tracking, and Piglet, after watching him for a minute or two, ran after him. Winnie-the-Pooh had come to a sudden stop, and was bending over the tracks in a puzzled sort of way.
"What's the matter?" asked Piglet.
"It's a very funny thing," said Bear, "but there seem to be two animals now. This-whatever-it-was has been joined by another-whatever-it-is-and the two of them are now proceeding in company.”
A.A. Milne, “Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting”

What About Change from the Bottom Up?

Research universities are large, complex entities and decision-making is usually dispersed throughout the institution often to the point that the process appears and actually often is fragmented and highly decentralized. In such an environment, might not change originate within the university on operational rather than executive levels and be led by champions whose scope of authority is more circumscribed than presidents and vice presidents?

Moreover, the general skepticism of many within the research university concerning change to the institution might be assuaged somewhat by cautious and small-scale experiments that test for the consequences of innovation. If so, academic deans and their operational counterparts inside the university may be the more likely change agents and innovators. If so, how to find such people?

Our experience in helping to recruit mid-level and executive administrators for higher education is that the sorts of questions that would help identify potential innovators are seldom asked. Instead, academic and higher education credentials assume great importance for what are almost invariably sizable committees who screen, interview and assess candidates for deanships and chair posts in research universities. And notwithstanding a genuine love of ideas by most search committee members, we find it hard to envision those committees posing these sorts of questions of and about candidates:

  • Is the candidate reactive or proactive?
  • Is the individual oriented toward the past or the future?
  • How comfortable is the candidate with ambiguity?
  • An optimist or a pessimist?
  • Possesses a record of persisting in pursuit of a goal over considerable time?
  • Demonstrates a variety of subject-matter interests beyond her own academic discipline or field of competence?
  • Does she invoke metaphors or parallels between the academic world and other domains?
  • Has thought about and reflected on the role of the university in the broader society and relates that to his everyday work?
  • Relies on data to help make decisions but also listens to anecdotes, especially from the persons she is charged with serving?
  • Demonstrates a willingness to set out ideas and have them challenged?
  • Has interests and hobbies outside the field of formal training?
  • Able to connect what, at first glance, appear to be disconnected things?
  • Respects tradition or questions precedent?
  • Understands that change is a group endeavor?

As “squishy” as these questions would no doubt seem to many, they are the types of inquiry that actually get at the likelihood that a candidate for college dean or department chair will be an agent for innovation. And if the need for innovation within our research universities is not yet clear and pressing, signs that may well be omens foretell a not too-distant time when these institutions will have to adapt to increasingly global competition that does not respect national boundaries in the search for the best talent and the most productive researchers.

In A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, Mark Twain observed that he who seeks the Holy Grail may have “no idea where [it] was, and I don’t think any of them actually expected to find it, or would have known what to do with it if he had run across it.” It could be, then, that research universities are not all that concerned for innovation or innovators who seek to change those institutions so much as they are keen to find and recruit innovative researchers and scholars.

The Irish ballad tells of the unicorns disappearing from the earth because they frolicked too long and missed boarding Noah’s ark before the flood enveloped them. For an institution such as the university to survive more or less intact since the Middle Ages, innovation and innovators may well not be as valuable as guardians of tradition and custom.

Finally, there exists the real possibility that those of us who hunt for innovators to join the academy are not unlike Pooh and his hunt for woozles: “I have been Foolish and Deluded,” said he, “and I am a Bear of No Brain at all.”

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