Enabling a Culture of Innovation: Leadership within Complex Adaptive Systems

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Higher education has a weak history of academic innovations that have led to sustained and truly meaningful transformation. This is not due to some extraordinary resistance to change or to a fundamental lack of trying, but rather because there are complexities inherent in the academic culture that keep higher education from fitting neatly into traditional innovation leadership models. This 45-minute featured session presents a new lens for thinking about leading change based on complex adaptive systems theory and the University System of Maryland’s 10-year history supporting academic innovation across our institutions.

Sponsored By


Dr. M.J. Bishop is Associate Vice Chancellor and inaugural director of the University System of Maryland’s William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation, which was established in 2013 to create a collaborative culture of academic innovation that catalyzes new ways of thinking about student success, translates ideas into action, and scales and sustains promising practices. The Kirwan Center leverages the power of multi-institutional collaboration to increase access, affordability, and achievement of high-quality credentials for Maryland students. As Director, Dr. Bishop is leading statewide initiatives in open educational resources, analytics, digital badging, adaptive learning, high-impact practices, academic integrity, and online education. Since coming to the USM in 2013, the Kirwan Center has been awarded grants totaling over $5.6M in support of a variety of initiatives aimed at exploring the role that state-level consortia can play in advancing institutional efforts to improve student success. Prior to USM, Dr. Bishop was an Associate Professor and Director of the Lehigh University College of Education’s Teaching, Learning, and Technology Program where she led the institution’s graduate programs in instructional design and technology, taught graduate level courses, and mentored master’s and doctoral students. While at Lehigh, Dr. Bishop received several awards for her research and teaching including the 2013 Stabler Award for Excellence in Teaching for leading students to 'excellence in their chosen field' as well as 'excellence as human beings and as leaders of society.' MJ’s research interests include understanding the fundamental components and the psychology behind instructional media and delivery systems in order to discover their pedagogical capabilities and limitations and to devise more effective ways to design instructional technologies to enhance learning.

Extended Abstract

Eckel, Hill, and Green (1998) defined transformational change as that which “1) alters the culture of the institution by changing select underlying assumptions and institutional behaviors, processes, and products; 2) is deep and pervasive, affecting the whole institution; 3) is intentional; and 4) occurs over time” (p. 3). But, to date, higher education has a weak history of academic innovations that have led to these kinds of transformations. This presentation explores the hypothesis that this is not due to some extraordinary resistance to change by educators or to a fundamental lack of trying across the field, but rather that there are complexities inherent in the academic institutional culture that keep higher education from fitting neatly into traditional innovation adoption models. It appears that bringing academic innovations to scale for transformational change may be as much about understanding and addressing the complex institutional culture as it is about adopting emerging technologies and incorporating evidence-based practice (Kezar & Eckel, 2002a, 2002b). Stated differently, achieving meaningful and lasting change from innovations in higher education is a cultural process, necessitating a more nuanced approach than simply getting sheer numbers of faculty, staff, and students to participate in an initiative. The change must come from full engagement of institutional staff and faculty focused on learning outcomes beyond grades on a transcript from courses taken. This transformation will require new communication strategies across “silos” and more effective, purposeful, and consistent messaging from leadership.

Unfortunately, determining the best approach to enabling a culture of innovation within higher education institutions has been somewhat elusive. Dynamic social systems such as education have far too many interacting variables to be reduced easily to a set of linear, cause-and-effect relationships (Banathy, 1991). Instead, we have recently been exploring how complex adaptive systems theory can inform our efforts to enable a culture of academic innovation.

Utilizing support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we reflected on the University System of Maryland’s eight-year, system-wide course redesign initiative to evaluate the System’s role in enabling this academic innovation to generate transformational change. The goal of this research was to determine opportunities for –and limits on– system action in support of academic change; to describe how circumstances combined to make it difficult to scale an innovation like course redesign; and to outline a strategy that, over time, may have a better chance of creating transformational change from System-led initiatives in the future. Reflecting on the organic and evolutionary development of these changes has provided insights and opportunities to capitalize on our initial successes and refocus our activities on areas where gaps were identified. Complex adaptive systems are “neural-like networks of interacting, interdependent agents who are bonded in a cooperative dynamic by a common goal, outlook, need, etc.” (Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey, 2007, p. 299). Keshavarz et al. (2010) identified the key characteristics of complex adaptive systems, which they have observed

  • learn and adapt in continually changing ways depending on the context;
  • retain distributed network control rather than centralized hierarchical control;
  • are “nested”; and,
  • exhibit “emergence” (the interplay of agents shape a hidden but recognizable regularity in the behavior of the whole system).

These characteristics of social complex adaptive systems can make it difficult to know how a higher education system will react to change –much less to know how to lead change within it. In fact, complexity scholars have argued that existing leadership theory is not particularly well suited to address the intricacies of these rapidly changing environments because traditional models are often premised on a particular individual’s efforts to create stability and eliminate uncertainty through organizational structure and hierarchy (see Child & McGrath, 2001; Ilinitch, D’Aveni, & Lewin, 1996; Levin & Fullen, 2008). Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey (2007) argued that leadership in complex adaptive systems “should not be seen only as position and authority but also as an emergent, interactive dynamic –a complex interplay from which a collective impetus for action and change emerges when heterogeneous agents interact in networks in ways that produce new patterns of behavior or new modes of operating” (p. 299). Hazy (2011) further suggested that understanding complex adaptive systems –and transformational leadership within them– requires a shift from thinking about system structures to focusing analyses on interrelations within the system instead. In this context, leadership is viewed not as a top-down function of corporate decision-making; rather, leadership is just one of several “organizational capabilities that directly relate to an organization’s performance and adaptability” (p. 168).

In this featured session, the presenter will begin by discussing the leadership approach the University System of Maryland (with 12 diverse institutions) has been taking with regard to academic innovation. The speaker will then present the complex adaptive systems theory framework for the attendees to consider as a potential change model for higher education, drawing from our experiences in leading change across the USM institutions over the last 10 years and our more recent experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining time will be reserved to provide concrete examples that can be informed by framework, how the framework relates to shared leadership and learning organization leadership approaches, and how it might be applied in specific institutional contexts. The goal of this session will be for attendees to leave with a framework for thinking in new ways about what leadership may need to look like within the complex adaptive higher education systems in which we all operate.