02/08/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2012

How Not to Innovate Higher Ed

Virtually every university is amidst a "yikes" moment about the future of their institution. They know they are under attack. There are hundreds of macro and micro threats, not the least of which is the UnCollege movement of more than 10,000 "unstudents" opting to home school at the post-secondary level, versus paying for a broken system.

These are exciting times because academia really wants to evolve, and admitting that is the first step. But innovation is hard -- and scary. To get different results you have to actually do things differently -- things you've never done before. Your institution hasn't really changed in 300 years, so don't expect it to be all rainbows and unicorns.

Here are some helpful hints for innovators in higher education to avoid making costly -- and embarrassing -- mistakes.

1. Do NOT innovate to meet your institutional needs.
Your pains are likely symptoms of something bigger outside your control. You won't know what needs solving without putting your pains in context. It's like the auto industry trying to solve slumping sales with a electric cars, when the right solution might entail inventing alternative transportation customers crave. Likewise, automakers never would have developed an alternative business model like ZipCar.

Academia- this isn't about you. It's about 21st century students and their unmet needs. Is your offering relevant to students who will most likely endure dissolving industries, nomadic style of work, and total personal career reinvention 5 to 10 times in a lifetime, who communicate in video rather than type reports, and spend 3x more time playing online games than they do reading? Innovate to meet student needs, and you'll solve your institutional ones.

2. No NOT rely on quantitative research.
Quantitative studies are history. They only reflect what people wanted yesterday, when they were asked those questions. Any solution based on that data is therefore historical by the time you bring it to market -- serving yesterday's needs.

Go out and understand students by observing and listening to what they aren't telling you. Talk to their parents, their roommates and friends. What are their pains and powers? What what frustrates them? What do their bookshelves and medicine cabinets reveal? Their backpacks? Their iTunes playlist? Empathize and discover the struggles they can't articulate yet. Solve those.

3. Do NOT copy industry benchmarks.
It's easy to get turned on by industry-admired shiny objects -- solutions that are competitive or represent a potential opportunity. However, what those solutions entail is far less interesting than why they work. An honest look might surprise you, and open up other possibilities to innovate.

The education industry admires Khan Academy -- a free, quality education. Khan is to education what Craigslist was to newspaper classifieds. But the lesson may not be technological or even the pricing. Khan solves one of the biggest student pains in education: teachers who don't resonate. (Or professors who can't teach and don't mentor.) What might you learn from that?

Also look outside your industry for inspiration. Other industries may know something you don't about serving your students. What could you learn from LL Bean customer service?

4. Do NOT implement innovation university-wide.
Administration often gets caught in the "should-we-shouldn't we" vortex because it affects everyone across their complex ecosystem. Endless debate hinders progress. The answer is not "should" or "shouldn't". It's effective, controlled experimentation that grows organically if successful.

Business Innovation Factory's Student Experience Labs start as a course at your university. Students reveal their own challenges, design and then develop solutions in the lab for credit. Then they experiment with the University's support in a controlled environment, to iterate prior to going prime time. If a solution catches on, it spreads like wild fire. The best part is that students themselves are both the originators and the champions of the innovation they need.

5. Do NOT start a committee.
You need action, not pontification. Hire the right team to make it happen and give them an appropriate budget to do so. If you really want change, it's going to cost you. And a line-item on the budget keeps you focused on delivering. A committee is a nice-to-have solution that tells the world, "we are thinking about it." An RFP or a Chief Innovation Officer empowered with a team and a budget says "we're serious about change."