3 ways college boards can prioritise innovation

Innovation for the long term should be part of a college board's main agenda - not a side dish, writes Pablo Lloyd

Pablo Lloyd

How college boards can prioritise innovation

After a year of high-speed innovation forced by the pandemic, college boards and leadership teams are asking themselves: how do we keep on innovating? And is our governance up to the job?      

This year of disruption has reminded us that innovation should be part of a board’s main agenda, not a side dish. Other priorities are often more pressing and easier to define, so discussions about innovation are easily squeezed out. We owe it to our stakeholders to do better.


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There are three elements that college boards should focus on when it comes to innovation: strategy, perspective and culture.

How college boards can focus on innovation 

Strategy

Most organisations are proud of their strategic plans. They are our roadmap for stakeholders and staff, inspiring and practical. We track progress, highlighting red areas to turn around and green areas to celebrate. Those of us subject to Ofsted are required to improve and we obsess about year-on-year metrics.

However, long-term innovation is hard to measure, hard to plan and rarely prioritised by regulators. It’s one of the greatest leadership challenges, but too many strategic plans are better at talk than action.

How often do we review our strategy? Some boards only review strategic plans every three years. A six-monthly review is the least we should expect in a world of fast-changing opportunities and threats.

How much do we invest in innovation? Budgets are tighter than ever and few organisations can invest 2 or 3 per cent of their total budget in pure innovation. But if we could, what would we invest it in? Good boards put pressure on operational budgets so they can invest for the long term. If budgetary costs and benefits only have a one- or two-year horizon, we are just managing, not leading.

Perspective

We have to challenge ourselves to keep a perspective on the organisation from the outside. We know that diverse teams deliver better results in the long term, but only if we tap into each others’ cultures and experiences. A board is a team with a particular obligation to refresh its perspective regularly.

Do we compare ourselves honestly against the market, and look for collaborators? Boards often want to be market leaders in some aspect of their strategy. It is less common to see boards examining other organisations, inside and outside their sector, to learn, collaborate and accelerate.

Do we hear directly from customers and service users? Together with frontline staff, they will give an honest reading of what makes us stand out and what holds us back.

Culture

For those of us in education, our finest moments are when we see the leaps of knowledge, skills and confidence in our students. We expect our teachers and lecturers to be inspiring in the classroom – a particularly tough challenge over the past 12 months.

Do we expect the same of ourselves as leaders in the boardroom? Are our board debates crackling with inspiration? Do we embrace the upsides and downsides of risk, with risk registers including failure to innovate?

Are we learning enough when things don’t go to plan? If we trust the skills of our team, can we resist pointing the finger of blame, to ask instead "what have we learned?"

Innovation should be in the boardroom as much as on the front line. We have to work hard to give it space, not settling for incremental improvement, but leading for the long term.

Pablo Lloyd OBE is a co-founder of Capital City College Group and chief executive of social enterprise Visionnaires 

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