IWU’s Culture of Innovation and Creativity

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Today we have the power and the responsibility to create the institutional culture that IWU must have to thrive over the next decade.

At our recent Leadership Team meeting I shared my reflections on a presidential vision for IWU’s future. I love visioning.  But vision alone is insufficient.  Vision requires the creation of an effective institutional culture and structure.

These are the most turbulent and uncertain circumstances American higher education has faced in several generations.  In recent years IWU has responded to this climate of social uncertainty, financial challenge, and external threat by making careful budget cuts.

This work is not pleasant.  In fact, cost cutting is hard on any institutional community.  But it is a necessary and healthy response to times of financial challenge.

Institutions that use challenging times to become more efficient and more focused often find that challenges make them stronger.

But now we must ask, beyond cost cutting, how can we create the kind of institutional culture that IWU will need to achieve the vision of becoming a truly great Christian university?

To put this as simply as I know how:

The more creative, innovative, and service-minded IWU’s institutional culture becomes, the more prepared we will be to achieve our vision in these unstable and challenging times. 

The most important aspect of our culture must always be our passionate embrace of being a Christ-centered and prayerful community.

cheerBut next to this, the most important work we must do is to cultivate a culture of innovation and creativity.  These traits must be embedded in a decision-making structure that is rigorously devoted to quality and efficiency, while also being empowering and nimble.

Business guru Tom Peters called him the founder of the world’s first trillion dollar company. You’ve heard of his company but you might not have heard of him. At the height of his success he retired from business and began tending a 200 acre farm on the Pacific coast near Silicon Valley.

His name is Dee Hock.  He founded VISA, the credit card network.

Hock coined the terms “chaord” and “chaordic” by combining two concepts that may not seem to go together: chaos and order.  Hock used this new term to describe organizations that allow great freedom for creativity and innovation, while remaining faithful to a central purpose and principles.  In profoundly unstable and unpredictable times, he believed, these are the organizations that thrive.

“Purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared, are the genetic code of any healthy organization.  To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control.  People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they’ll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs.” (Dee Hock, founder of VISA)

This is my aspiration for IWU.  I hope that we will become a community united around purpose and principle.  I hope that our mission and our vision to become a truly great Christian university by embracing Christ-like service will become our genetic code.

hodsonYears ago I observed the practical truth of a principle that Tom Peters articulated. He and a partner studied organizations that sustained excellence and growth in uncertain and challenging conditions.  He wrote,

“After 50 (combined) years of watching organizations thrive and shrivel, [he and his co-researcher] held to one, and only on, basic belief: To loosen the reins, to allow a thousand flowers to bloom and a hundred schools contend, is the best way to sustain vigor in perilous, gyrating times.” (Tom Peters)

Arie de Geus created an interesting metaphor for this institutional culture.

“Low tolerance (for variety) is efficient, but it requires a strong set of hierarchical controls in order to minimize the use of resources.  And it needs a stable world. It’s a little like pruning roses. You decide to prune your roses short or long. If you prune long–if you are tolerant–you will certainly not be the best performer in the industry with the highest return on investment. You may not have this year’s largest roses. But you have considerably increased the chances that you will have roses every year. Tolerant pruning . . . gradually renews the plant over time and is more effective in a world you cannot control. I may not have the biggest roses, but I always have roses.” (Arie de Geus, former strategist, Royal Dutch Shell)

“De Geus . . . examined a handful of businesses that have thrived over the very long haul.  And he finds that the key to their success is relatively loose reins. The long term top performers may not have been No. 1 in a given year or decade. But, decades in and decades out, they [have exceeded] the competition.  Call it true decentralization or let 1000 roses bloom.” (Tom Peters)

guyclassroomIn recent weeks, many of you have told me that you fear IWU now has an internal climate of uncertainty and timidity.  This does not surprise me.  We have come through challenging times.

But we must face this truth squarely.  If we allow this period of uncertainty and challenge to create among us a culture of uncertainty, tentativeness, and fear, we will be headed in exactly the wrong direction.

Together we must lead IWU to become a different kind of organization. We must recapture our zest for creativity, innovation, and growth.

I have asked the key faculty, administrative, and staff Leadership Team of IWU to commit ourselves to the task of creating an institutional culture that is:

  • Fanatically committed to the purpose and principles that define who we are,
  • Constantly seeking innovation and creativity in pursuit of that purpose,
  • Addicted to planning but not afraid to try new things, to reinvent ourselves, to launch out into uncharted waters in order to become a truly great Christian university.

Next week, I would like to describe for you the broad outlines of the administrative structure I have asked our administrative team to put in place.

I will also talk about the work that we need to do together to flesh out that structure, and to create the culture that will allow IWU to thrive in uncertain times.