CEO Notebook

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO
@shieldsNBOA

Disciplined Innovation

From Net Assets NOW, November 5, 2019. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

Innovation is omnipresent in independent school leaders’ discussions these days. And for good reason. It is largely understood that the success factors that supported independent schools for decades will likely weaken in coming years, as demographics shift, our business models face unprecedented pressures and the competitive PK-12 marketplace expands beyond well-funded publics, charters and magnets to include online education, for-profit schools and homeschooling.

For this reason, McKinsey Quarterly’s recent article about “The Innovation Commitment” grabbed my attention. The authors’ previous research defined eight “essentials” of sustainable innovation: to aspire, choose, discover, evolve, accelerate, scale, extend and mobilize. The first two essentials, to choose and to aspire, closely align with independent schools because they emphasize not only generating ideas but also operationalizing initiatives. The article makes clear how the business officer, as the financial leader, can play a strategic role in the innovation process.

To “aspire” in these terms is the “blue-sky” or “out-of-the-box” thinking that requires vision, creativity and imagination. This is indeed essential, but what happens next? The authors’ counsel here is valuable. They explain that many initiatives fail from a scattershot approach. Even if they were the right or necessary things to do, inadequate framing will result in crumbling support. When innovation does not quickly lead to transformation or significant revenue growth, for example, efforts are likely to fail because colleagues don’t share an understanding of the desired outcome.

That is where the next element, to “choose,” enters. Like many aspects of independent schools, innovation is about making choices. An independent school budget captures the numerous financial choices a school makes to fulfill its mission. No matter the school, resources are finite. This is why making choices about short- and long-term innovation — and communicating the reasons behind those choices — is also critical to overall organizational success. And this is where the business officer has an opportunity to lead in partnership with the head of school and board of trustees. The authors suggest managing innovation like you would your school’s endowment. It is a long play that requires discipline, rigor, oversight and management to yield expected returns.

The authors also suggest organizations frame their innovation portfolio in a “green box.” This means distinguishing it like other significant areas of your school enterprise, such as program or facilities, but with the potential purpose of institutional transformation and/or revenue generation. As with other portfolios, balance is key. Some initiatives will transform and expand your school’s program or open your school to new markets, while others may generate additional non-tuition financial resources. Most initiatives will not accomplish all of the above. Without understanding an initiative’s goals, stakeholders may view it as failure and revert to the status quo — something few schools can afford to do. Delineating each initiative with clearly understood expectations and outcomes should lead to higher tolerance for change.

No organization, including independent schools, can afford to sidestep reflecting, reinventing, and yes, innovating to maintain value and relevance in these turbulent times. Delving into the essential elements of “innovation commitment” helped me, and I hope you, better understand the process from an operational standpoint. It should help schools innovate and transform in ways that are value-added, fueled by the imagination of your school’s leadership, within the resources of the school and sustainable for the long-term.

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
President and CEO

Jeff has been NBOA's president and CEO since March 2010. Prior to joining NBOA, he spent almost 10 years at the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), serving most recently as senior vice president and chief planning officer. An active member of the American Society of Association Executives, Jeff earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation in 2002 and was selected as an ASAE Fellow in 2008. He currently serves as a trustee for the One Schoolhouse, Inc., and previously served as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.

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