An Innovation Culture for Student Hubs

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One of my own side projects is being a trustee for student social action charity Student Hubs. Student Hubs is a network of student-led social action projects, social innovation acceleration, and community volunteering activities run at a number of UK universities including my own in Bristol. Last week I had I the pleasure of delivering a day of innovation training and strategic thinking for a team of senior leaders and officers about how to enhance their personal and organisational processes.

I include personal processes here because I believe that by better understanding how individuals are creative and innovative we can better understand and enable their ideas in their organisations. For example, we are all more creative when we are allowed to make mistakes, be silly, and think in a divergent manner before surrendering to practicality and necessity; so at the heart of an innovative organisation is a permission to fail, to say daft things, and to explore before executing. You do also need a good critical process to evaluate and execute on ideas, but I find that organisations assume the creative bit is somehow magical and just happens without a great deal of planning and support.

With Student Hubs I built the day around a few key building blocks:

Definitions: words like creativity, innovation, enterprise, and entrepreneurship are like Marmite to different groups so it’s critical to tackle them early and offer an approachable interpretation. My own definitions suggest creativity is about generating novel or new ideas (not necessarily good ones), innovation is about finding impactful ideas (so quality becomes an issue here), enterprise is about the courage and competence to act on ideas, and entrepreneurship is about building organisations around those ideas to enact and sustain them.

Personal Habits: I like to focus early on personal habits; drawing heavily from the work of Stephen Johnson and ideas around situated cognition I focus on identifying personal behaviours and processes that help solve problems but that also drive engineered serendipity (i.e. luck). So we talked about places, people, and times that help individuals be creative; we also talked about how “garbage in = garbage out” and that you need to build a pipeline of stimulating reading, viewing, networking, and activity that feeds you the inspiration and raw components of future ideas.

Then we moved out to the culture and organisation and talked about good brainstorming, building processes and systems that enable rather than choke off innovation. The Student Hubs team really responded well to a challenge to illustrate how ideas emerged, flourished, stumbled, succeeded and died in different parts of their work, this helped us find both simple and complex solutions to drive more innovative activity. Student Hubs doesn’t suffer a dearth of ideas but maybe a lack of confidence or realism (or both) amongst the students and a lack of resource and tools amongst the staff to champion ideas and empower individuals as much as they’d like. These were things that we were able to make approachable to be mitigated or solved with a range of idea-validation, coaching, and lean start-up methodology.

Finally we looked at how ideas graduate from local hubs to become national programmes; devising processes to source more, evaluate better, support efficiently, and implement more effectively. By the end of the day we had individual and collective lists of ideas and processes to go and enact. In particular we had a substantial yet inspiring list of national-level ideas and a criteria and process by which to judge and enable them.

Innovation is not rocket science; it’s about removing the barriers to individual and collective creativity and providing a culture that supports and stretches those within it.

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