Smart Innovation Budgeting

Have you ever seen a unicorn?

Okay, not a real unicorn. I mean a something rare and exceptional within a context. Sometimes they’re called white whales or white buffaloes. I saw one recently.

I had the honor of giving a keynote and a workshop at a Teaching and Learning event for a large university in California last week. It was a great experience revisiting a school I know well, with really progressive and engaged faculty, as well as forward thinking leadership.

Prior to speaking, one of the administrators and I were talking about how things have been going at the school since my last visit a few years back. He told me some great news. Having watched my career from a distance, specifically within the innovation space, he brought up innovation at the school and delighted me with their strategic thinking.

Most Innovation Across Higher Education

Where are all of your innovation eggs?

Where are all of your innovation eggs?

I’m surprised how often I talk with people regarding what you are about to read and they have never thought about the ramifications. The bureaucracy and poor strategic planning regarding innovation, mixed with budgeting are just so ingrained, people assume it is the way it has to be. Let me explain what I mean.

Think about how your school, college, university, department, etc., budget for innovation. Having studied this for a very long time and after hundreds of conversations with executives and other education leaders, I think it is fair to say the following represents how the process works at most institutions.

  1. As yearly budgets are being finalized, all departments are asked if they have any innovation projects they are interested in promoting. A handful are interested, so they write up a one-pager (including the first year’s budget) for the executive atop their vertical. (This is assuming the school is not in a time of short-fall, when most top executives cut all innovation funding, apparently trying to “cut” their way back to success…but that’s another blog)

  2. Having already lost something in the translation (including passion), the executives present their report’s innovation ideas. Then the executives collectively pick the top X (often 2 is the reported number). Those ideas will be funded to a greater or lesser extent while the rest of the ideas will need to be resubmitted the following year.

  3. So, the two submitters are informed that they are now in charge of the idea and must create a plan of implementation, some kind of measurement, etc. Excitedly, they do so.

  4. After a few months of planning, the term is about to start. The “owner” of the innovation project starts presenting it at meetings or in pre-term sessions and that’s where things start to unravel. For most staff and faculty, this is not their first rodeo. They may nod and smile in agreement during a meeting (or they may not), but as soon as the event is over, the meeting attendees are nowhere to be found. So, the owner of the project has to go knocking on doors, calling in favors, and scraping support off the bottom of chairs wherever they can. Emails go unanswered, lunch and learns go unattended. The same 15 people who support every project show up, but that’s about it. That’s how it goes for both projects, by the way.

  5. By the 9 month mark, the measures of success are likely nonexistent (which is ok, because all ROI for innovation is a lie..). A report or two may be generated, but they are likely lip-service more than just about anything. By month 10, most people agree that the school gave it the “old college try.” And as the new budgets are being created, the process has started all over again anyway.

Sound familiar? Most colleges and universities put all of their innovation budgets into a few ideas, so those ideas had better be amazing! But as you know, they almost never are. So schools don’t innovate nearly as much as they simply evolve.

How To Get A Great Idea


Jack Foster, writer of the book, “How to Get Ideas”, answers the question of how great (creative, innovative, etc) ideas should be found in a way which may seem cheeky at first, but it isn’t. In order to get a great idea, the first rule is that you must generate a LOT of ideas. Or, put into an innovation context, the way to bolster innovation is to support a LOT of innovative projects.

Think about it this way. If you are putting “seed” money behind 20 innovation projects, you can watch them grow or die. People are more likely to get involved in a few innovation projects within the portfolio because it’s not like going down with a highly visible ship, it’s more like an entrepreneurial workshop. It requires less commitment, but has about the same chance of succeeding as the largely backed initiative (very little).

Then, and here is the REALLY hard part, you need to nurture the projects that are seeing gains. A few universities do foster a lot of projects. Last year I talked with one of (if not) the most famous innovative university’s Chief Innovation Officer about this very thing. The problem he described to me was even though they were fantastic at creating new projects, they were horrible at seeing those projects grow. Those initiatives never really saw funding that suggested they were moving to the next level. The result? This university has (literally) thousands of innovation initiatives, but none that have any meaningful results at scale. Not one. (That Chief Innovation Officer is looking for a new landing spot, by the way…)

So, not only do you need to get and support a lot of ideas, but then you need high level stakeholders supporting those initiatives, both in infancy and maturity. That is really where the beauty of a Chief Innovation Officer can help, so long as they have the right seat at the table. (If the majority of executives see the CIO as a money suck or a resource drain, then it doesn’t matter how much reason, credibility, or passion is included, nor how much money is spent, the initiatives will fail.)

So back to the unicorn. This California university has taken the first step of a genuine innovation “incubator.” They are promoting more than a dozen innovation projects this year. And the next part, the hard part, is also going well. They are seeing a few of those projects work and they are starting to fund and resource them more. I hope that continues. Our higher education system is in desperate need of innovation.

Good luck and good learning