I recently returned from New Orleans where I was attending the Online Learning Consortium’s annual Innovate Conference. The conference agenda was a slam-dunk, and I have to pat myself on the back for choosing great sessions to attend.
One session in particular really resonated with my study in the Penn State Emerging Leaders program. After co-facilitating a workshop Wednesday morning, I sat in on a session titled “Making Innovation a Strategic Priority: Building and Supporting an Instructional Innovation Team.” The session was presented by David Howard, Director of Instructional Innovation Services at NC State’s Distance Education & Learning Technology Applications department, also known as DELTA.
As I sat in the session, I immediately thought that David and his talk would be a great blog topic for PSEL and took a lot of notes about the things he was saying. It was great to be hearing a talk that aligned so closely with not only my professional working life, but also an area of development that I’m actively working on improvement. The DELTA group that David leads is very similar to the team that I work with currently here at PSU.
David discussed some unique strategies that have been implemented in his unit to promote innovation among staff and faculty at NC State, and he also shared some insight on how he created a team culture that supports these initiatives. For example, one of the cool things they do that I was really into was the idea of DELTA Grants, where faculty can write proposals for educational technology innovation projects they would like to explore and submit them to the department. It’s been a really successful initiative and they are able to award a number of grants each year.
What I enjoyed most about David’s presentation was that he not only shared what they were doing, but how they got there. For others looking to try to start a program of their own, David offered the following advice: Find the influential people in your department, college, or unit, and ask them directly, “What do you need me to do in order to have your support for this?” Obtaining buy-in from key influencers in your area of impact is essential to rolling out any new, potentially disruptive initiatives.
David also had a lot of insight to share on his leadership philosophy. In order to build a culture that was ready to accept innovation and change, he suggested making sure that those buzzwords were added into any strategic plan, mission, stated vision, etc., that guides your department’s function. That way, there is a clear expectation that resources such as staff time, funds, tools, etc. can and will be used to achieve goals that carry out the mission/vision. Ensuring that phrases such as “research and exploration” and “innovative approaches” are in your unit’s guiding principles sets the standard for what other stakeholders who work with you can expect as well. He also mentioned that often, these seemingly perfunctory exercises need to be approved by those higher up than you, so that approval is the first step to having buy-in.
David was also very people-oriented when he talked about his team. Based on our most recent seminar about leadership styles, I would guess that David is a mix of a servant leader and a charismatic leader. He mentioned that he often will take a role on projects even though he is the director, and his advice about obtaining the blessing from key influences makes me think he’s probably very charismatic and able to move others to support the ideas and vision of his department.
Some of the more memorable advice he offered when it came to leading others was to focus on putting the right people into the right places. That means having a clear understanding of everyone’s strengths, abilities, and preferences when developing project teams. People who have the necessary skills and the desire to work on a specific initiative are much more intrinsically motivated to perform well.
He also mentioned that it was important to set up a culture where the team feels protected and able to take some risks. Allowing room for failure is key to achieving an innovative culture, but David also warned that it was important to protect the team from themselves as well. When you have an employee who has worked on something for a long time, but it’s just not working out, it’s understandable that they would be less willing to let it go. Sometimes as a leader you need to know when to recognize that one of your teammates is clinging to something that, while important to them, is a dead end. Communicating this to them in a way that lets them know their contribution is important and appreciated but ultimately unsustainable is an essential skill when working in the innovation game.
Overall, the presentation was fantastic and gave me a lot of good ideas to share with my team from a practical perspective, but I also absorbed some valuable leadership insights that I will be sure to add to my leadership philosophy and try to practice during my day-to-day responsibilities.