Three successful leaders who are well known to the Butler community recently gathered with Butler’s Vice President for Strategy and Innovation, Melissa Beckwith ’00, to discuss innovation, leadership, and staying nimble in a constantly changing world. They explored what it means to be innovative, how to foster a culture that fuels creativity, and why Butler is uniquely positioned to navigate the higher education challenges ahead. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
James Danko, Butler University President, 2011–Present
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics Head Coach, 2013–Present (Butler Men’s Basketball Head Coach, 2007–2013)
Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist, Wharton Professor, New York Times Bestselling Author, “WorkLife” Podcaster, and fan of The Butler Way (Butler Guest Speaker in 2017)
Q: We live in a time when many industries, including higher education, and organizations are experiencing significant change. We often hear there is a need to innovate or transform in order to survive. What do the words innovation and transformation mean to you?
Brad Stevens: Innovation and transformation mean that you are always a bit uncomfortable, in a good way. You recognize that if things aren’t going well there are changes that need to be made to get moving in the right direction, and if things are going well, the dip is right around the corner. You have to stay not only at pace with your competitors, but stay ahead in a lot of ways and be malleable, adjust on the fly, and have a foundation that you can lean on.
Adam Grant: Innovation is implementing ideas that are new and improved from the status quo. Transformation is making innovation routine, making it the norm, making it widespread, and preventing it from just happening in one pocket of your organization.
James Danko: Innovation is a way to move beyond the complacency inherent in many organizations. In higher education—where tradition is so highly valued and respected—there’s an inclination to depend upon the way things have always been done. Innovation allows people to consider possibilities, beyond past and current practices, and adapt to a shifting landscape while positioning their school for future success. Transformation is the outcome of innovation.
Q: Innovation is easy to talk about but can be difficult to achieve. How do you innovate?
Brad: I am more of a thief than an innovator. I try to keep up with best practices in the game around me. I work and study not only what is going on in the NBA and college game, but also internationally, and then try to fit those best practices to the strengths of the individuals on our team. There may be bits and pieces that I take from across the globe. To me that is not necessarily innovation as much as just studying and piecing a puzzle together, but I think that is the way I would view what I try to do. I don’t see it as rewriting a chapter or changing the narrative of things; itis applying small tweaks to what I’ve seen as best practices and putting it to best use for my team.
Adam: Brad is the most honest thief out there.
Jim: When we think of innovation, we often think there is a “eureka” moment that occurs and a new idea results. But innovation is often underpinned by hard work—research, assessment, perhaps benchmarking against different types of entities. While some people may get concerned that they are not creative or innovative enough, from my experience, I don’t see creativity as necessarily inherent. I believe you can nurture and encourage innovation through focused effort and perseverance.
Adam: My favorite way of capturing what it means to be creative is how Karl Weick describes it. Karl always said creativity is putting old things in new combinations, and new things in old combinations. In a way, that is what Brad just described. You go and borrow ideas from lots of different worlds, but it is all about the tailoring of those ideas. I think those re-combinations are fundamentally innovative acts. It is very much like being a chef. It takes ingenuity to use all the same ingredients that other people have access to, but maybe you apply them in a different way to create a different dish, and that sequencing, or repackaging, to me is what the innovation process might look like.
Q: An innovation process is important but having the right culture is crucial. What type of environment nurtures innovation?
Jim: The leadership team at Butler is very deliberate about fostering an environment that encourages innovation. From the Board of Trustees down, there is an atmosphere of open-mindedness and creativity about the way Butler moves ahead. We recognize that changes to higher education are occurring rapidly and will continue to do so—from student demographics, to learning styles, to wellness needs. Across all areas of campus, we have to embrace innovation if we’re going to make Butler stronger for future generations.
Brad: You are only going to be innovative if you are encouraged to be innovative. If you are working in a place that is stuck doing things the way things have always been done, it’s going to be hard to feel comfortable thinking outside of the box. It is important to be able to appropriately challenge the status quo on occasion, and say “How can we make this a lot better?”
Adam: I like to look at the exceptions. If you are not in an environment or culture that makes that easy, what can you do? There is a paper that I really love in my field on creative deviance, or looking at how sometimes people directly violate norms in order to get their ideas advanced. For example, the Pontiac Fiero was designed after a designer violated three separate orders from management to stop working on a prototype. Even The Godfather involved a filmmaker who basically violated every directive from Paramount Pictures about what the plot was supposed to be, who should be cast in it, what the budget should be, and where it should be filmed. So I think there is something to be learned from those examples. If you don’t create the psychological safety for people to take risks on new ideas, and if you don’t give them the freedom and resources to actually test them out and learn from them, you’re usually not going to get very far.
Q: Innovation requires change. Each of you have played a role in leading teams through change. What are the keys to successfully doing so?
Adam: A lot of the keys to success are about avoiding the systematic mistakes that a lot of us have made. The first mistake that I see too many leaders make is that they fail to create a sense of urgency for change. That happens because when you are leading a transformation or when you have an innovative idea, it is abundantly clear to you why that makes sense, and it is hard for you to imagine somebody not getting it. You tend to forget that most people are excited about the status quo, or at least they are attached to the status quo, because it is familiar and comfortable. To be effective, you can’t just convey all the good things that will happen with change; you have to make clear all the bad things that will happen without change. Then the status quo becomes a bit destabilized and people are more open to trying something new and different. The other big mistake that drives me crazy is when people run in with solutions before they have really carefully diagnosed the problem.
Brad: You are never as good as you think you are, you are never as bad as you think you are, and you are never far from either. At the end of the day, it is about knowing foundationally what works, the things that are critical to your team’s performance and to your organizational health, and prioritizing those things. The magic is in the work. Put your head down and work.
Jim: It’s important to both make a case for change, which often requires presenting the harsh reality of a situation, while also presenting the opportunities inherent within a challenging situation. In the case of higher education, there are clear signs of a difficult future, whether it’s seeing universities close at an accelerated pace or the national student debt exceeding 1.5 trillion dollars—situations that should worry everyone. But those challenges also present an opportunity to adapt and take the lead on new educational approaches. I am confident that at Butler, if we’re innovative and open ourselves to new opportunities, we will continue to benefit our students well into the future.
Q: Adam mentioned the need to carefully diagnose the problem before developing ideas. President Danko shared the staggering amount of national student debt and the recent closure of several universities. In light of this, what is the problem higher education needs to solve?
Adam: Higher education is the most important force for learning and teaching in the world. No one gets better at anything without being a dedicated learner and also without having and being a great teacher. The first threat is that there are more vehicles for both teaching and learning that now exist outside of higher education that didn’t exist in the past. It’s easier to learn online now, it’s easier to take non-degree courses, and in many ways, it’s like we have gone back half a millennium and it’s easier to apprentice yourself in your craft and to learn things on YouTube.
I think there is also a growing case to be made that the kinds of jobs that previously needed a college degree are no longer going to require an advanced education. So I think it is possible that a small subset of schools will gain more of a monopoly on higher education, and all the other schools will be struggling to recruit students. The last threat is the feasibility of distance learning. I think so much of the value added by a university is getting people together so they can have experiential learning, they can have extended debate, they can really challenge each other’s thinking. As it gets easier and easier for people to learn from a distance, it gets harder to draw them into a campus, and that makes the unique value of an institution of higher education harder to convey and harder to deliver.
Jim: In the past, many of our students had to physically go to a library to find information. Now information that was well beyond the capacity of a library is immediately available to students on their phones. A key role of universities is to transfer knowledge. In our technologically advancing world, it’s imperative that we make the case for the Butler approach to education, and the value inherent when people gather in person and learn from faculty and one another. I expect that approach to continue to be core.
But to be successful moving forward, we’ll need to be multidimensional in the way we transfer knowledge.
Of course, the challenges extend beyond the approach to education. Over the past 20 years, the average net tuition, room, and fees at private universities have risen by 23 percent while median household incomes have grown by only 3 percent. Between 2017 and 2029, experts predict there will be an 11 percent decline in demand for a regional private education due, in part, to the significant contraction in the number of 18-year-olds in the United States. Universities must face the reality that there will be fewer students attending college, and even fewer still that can afford the traditional, residential undergraduate model.
Q: What makes you feel confident Butler will successfully navigate the challenges ahead?
Brad: The same thing that has allowed Butler to navigate the challenges of the past and continue to progress and move forward and keep adding, is the people—leadership, faculty, staff, and students. My 13 years at Butler were some of the most influential years to help me learn, grow, and get better at what I ultimately wanted to pursue. It was such an empowering environment. I feel very confident that if a challenge presents itself, the people at Butler will figure it out.
Adam: It is hard to top that. But for my part, you have a couple of things going for you. You have a president who is an entrepreneur at heart and a doer. A lot of universities have great thinkers at the top who don’t get anything done. I also think that there is an advantage to your small size. You are a lot more nimble; it’s easier to make changes, as opposed to being stuck in a giant bureaucracy. Then there is the culture. When I think of The Butler Way, I think of the humility. There is a norm at Butler that gets set on the basketball court, but pervades the University. Everyone is excited to figure out what they don’t know and keep learning. I think that is kind of the wellspring of innovation. And then also, the generosity. Butler is a school of givers. You have a group of people who are drawn to the school because they are excited to try and figure out how they can help others and contribute to a meaningful mission. I have some data suggesting that when people are focused on solving problems, not just for themselves, but for others, they end up generating more innovative ideas because they do a lot more perspective-taking, they think about what different kinds of solutions might look like for different kinds of people, and that is all good for generating ideas that turn out to be novel and useful.