Cultivating a culture of innovation in higher education

Author: Jordan Cleland

Cultivating a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education

Jordan Cleland
3 October 2014

Cleland, J. (2014). Cultivating a Culture of Innovation in Higher Education. (A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Master of Professional Practice, Otago Polytechnic.) [PDF 2.3MB]


The author of this paper has been in leadership roles in the public sector for 12 years; the last seven of which have been in a senior administrative capacity in higher education with a great deal of success leading and executing my division’s mandate for fundraising, communications and brand promotion, government, media, alumni and public relations, special event planning and execution, and leadership over intercollegiate varsity athletics. I have learned by doing, trial and error, gleaning pieces from supervisors and mentors over the years, learning from those I’ve led, snippets of professional development training in conference, seminar and short certificate environments over the past 20 years since my last formal education through my undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree.

I chose as my Masters of Professional Practice in Leadership focal point, how to create a culture of innovation in higher education. I was essentially after the formula to continue leading by leveraging the talents of the led by a deliberate harnessing of a culture of shared leadership. I began with the concept of how to “create” or “engineer” such a workplace, but I quickly had my perspective changed in my literature review and as I began talking to people, including our President, through my qualitative interviews that “creating” was the wrong word. One cannot over-engineer or create the optimal culture for high performing sustained leadership in our post-secondary learning environment.

I changed the word creating to cultivating, the latter having connotations of some deliberate effort, but from a place of being nurtured of environment and “growing conditions”. That the term cultivating has some nice double entendre meanings to my current professional practice at Olds College, with the college’s steeped core of agriculture, was also convenient and appropriate. As I went deeper into the literature, discussion and reflection, I began to think that cultivating might not even be the best descriptor, that the term unleashing was superior. 

This was at a point in my journey of reflection and discovery where I was so taken by the concept that, if a leader could embrace a workplace environment of open communication, shared decision-making, a relationship with employees that eschewed traditional notions of command and control in favour of trust, freedom to experiment and therefore fail from time to time, employee autonomy - that this is all that was needed to unleash the power of the many minds and wells of creativity to take a culture of innovation to great heights. But then I began to grapple with the notion that the true recipe wasn’t just 100% cultural - that there is a role for “a bit” of structure for the capture and evaluations of the ideas that will naturally come spewing out of the optimal culture on a frequent basis. It does require some nurturing of deliberateness; some intentional cultivation.

This research project and paper is not just one of pure theory. It is a Masters of Professional Practice, and the practice that grounds and edifies this inquiry, is my current leadership role and organizational context at Olds College. This college is a very successful organization, and our stakeholders from industry, alumni, students, government have routinely and frequently given Olds College the label of “innovative”. I wanted to get a deeper sense of why that is, where it comes from, whether the label is fully or partially deserved.

Yet I had to start somewhere in terms of a hypothesis, and this is what that hypothesis was at the beginning of my work:
to the extent that innovation exists at Olds College, it is mostly driven by a highly creative, highly persuasive and charismatic President and senior leaders around him. When this President leaves, there is a strong chance that much of the innovation will dry up or cease.


This thesis is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License