Complex problems demand creative solutions. Dynamic leaders transform obstacles into opportunities. Far too many institutions in higher education are yawning on the brink of obsolescence because they persist in doing things the same way simply because “we’ve always done it this way.” Insightful leaders are able to marry the wisdom of experience with openness to fresh ideas.
For some entrepreneurial thinkers, unconventional thinking comes naturally. Unfortunately, we are not all Steve Jobs. Thankfully, creativity isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not something you have or you don’t. Creativity is a muscle that can be strengthened. In fact, more cautious individuals are often able to harness the productive power of innovation without being blind-sided by potential downsides. There are simple steps all of us can take to cultivate creativity. We have three ways to pioneer out-of-the-box ideas at your organization.
Sometimes innovative solutions are tectonic shifts, but often minor adjustments have major implications. Step back and consider what your objective is and the different ways you can achieve it. Don’t just look at the what, but the how.
In the face of a nation-wide teacher shortage, many municipalities are paying teachers more to attract talent. One school district evaluated where to best focus funds for the optimum results. Leaders in Battle Creek, Michigan, noticed that when teachers put down roots in their community, it improved job satisfaction and increased retention. They pioneered a program that enables teachers to live in the communities where they teach. The school district partnered with local realtors to provide up to $20,000 in down payment assistance or $4,500 of rental assistance per year for teachers who moved into a target area. This inventive approach allowed their retention efforts to be more effective without a larger investment.
Someone in your organization has the solution to your problem, you just have to identify it. Innovative leaders empower others to understand and address opportunities. A diversity of voices improves outcomes.
A small species has become a big problem in New England. Over 200 years ago green crabs came to the United States on European ships. Ever since then, the invasive species has been wreaking havoc on the ecosystem up and down the eastern shoreline. They eat mollusks—to the tune of 40 mussels a day per crab—and destroy habitats. One company took the old adage about turning lemons into lemonade to heart. Tamworth Distilling is using the problematic crabs to make whiskey. Green crabs are the key ingredient in the distillery’s Crab Trapper whiskey. This not only makes a delicious drink, but it also publicizes the problem. Through sharing the detrimental effects that green crabs have, Tamworth Distilling is involving others in the ecosystem that affects them. Creative leaders respect the ideas of others and involve them in expanding innovation.
Capitalize on Your Strengths
You bring unique assets to universal problems. How are you poised to create solutions that others will miss? Innovative leaders understand and leverage their competitive advantage.
When Fisk University’s enrollment soared, it had to find housing for hundreds of students. The timeline to construct traditional dorm buildings is long, leaving a gap in serving students. Fisk is a small, private college. The leaders of Fisk recognized that the institution’s size gave them agility. They are able to ideate and implement ideas that might get mired down at larger institutions. And they’ve hatched an ingenious idea: transform shipping containers into student apartments. This unconventional building material not only allows Fisk to create housing much more quickly than traditional housing, it does so at a significant savings—costing 40 percent less. The chic steel apartments in school colors will be housing students this fall. Fisk didn’t employ a one-size-fits-all approach, but used its size to its advantage.
If creativity is accessible to everyone, why don’t more leaders take a chance on innovative solutions? The answer is simple: risk. There is potential liability in stepping out in implementing an untried strategy. Savvy leaders recognize that failure is a necessary and instructive part of success. They are willing not only to weather some failures, but also to learn from them as they refine their methodology. So, I invite you to try new things. You will fail. But you will also succeed. Creativity can be the catalyst your institution needs to propel growth and sustain longevity.
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