Startup Thinking In Higher Ed: a conversation with Eric Ries

June 7, 2012, 8:03 pm

Just got off the phone with Eric Ries and I’m sure I came off as a total fan boy. His work was a huge influence on my white paper. Anyway, we talked about lean startup in higher education. Here are a few notes: (typed super quickly)


Change the Content/Context
He made the common argument that universities were designed for a different era, and that even newly launched universities follow the same old model. He talked a bit about this with the Washington Post.


The problem he sees is that this worked with the older social contract: you attend, get degree, get into a profession, and then retire. The problem is that this social contract is being re-negotiated by the job market—and universities are still operating under the old contract.


Teaching Entrepreneurialism
Eric is an evangelist for entrepreneurialism—he argues that this skillset/mindset is invaluable to students. Many people from K-12 and higher education are listening and onboard with this and want to integrate entrepreneurialism — but they struggle with implementation.


He framed it like this: you might have this new idea, but then you try to apply the old management practices to create the path for implementing this new thing—and it fails. For example, schools were taking two years to plan ways to embed entrepreneurialism into the curriculum. This just burns through time, money, and effort without including feedback from (potential) students or any experimentation to see what is effective. This is exactly the same problem that kills most startups—they have a decent idea but they can’t get it off the ground without running through all their cash.


Liberal Arts Degrees
“Teaching Entrepreneurialism” doesn’t just mean teaching people how to run a company or basic business skills—it’s more about creativity, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. Entrepreneurialism isn’t just for science, engineering, and business majors but is also beneficial for liberal arts majors too.  In fact, Eric raved about the crucial need for people with these degrees and said they are essential and sought after because they can apply knowledge from different domains and can make cognitive leaps.


“Faculty who embrace change will become the superstars of tomorrow.” Direct quote.


Higher Education is going through a reshuffling—the people at the top don’t necessary want to see that, but the junior faculty who embrace it will become the new leaders. Incumbents are always resistant, no matter the context.


He mentioned the music industry several times. The distributors didn’t want to accept change and those who did wasted too much time, money, and energy on concepts that consumers didn’t want. So the power shifted from the incumbents to Apple. iTunes was a startup-like idea that became the new domain because they developed a new business model.


Just like music, higher ed is valuable, people want it—just need to consider new models. The schools that do so will be the ones that thrive.


Lean Startup – not just for startups
He mentioned that all types of organization are using his approach:  Fortune 500s, non-profits, federal and municipal governments, etc. (See, it’s not a stretch for libraries.)


He recommended a video on his blog that highlights several instances of Lean Government. I’ve watched half of it so far and its pretty amazing stuff. The Health Data Initiative is cool.


Implementation in Higher Education
Implementation faces the same challenges everywhere in every environment—higher ed is not unique. But the solution is to create the conditions that support entrepreneurialism.


He feels that there needs to be a change in perspective from “I’m going to educate these thirty students in my class” to instead focusing on educating “the world.”


His key suggestion was to name  a team of people to be the Entrepreneurs of the Enterprise. These folks needed to have the freedom to explore. They need to be taken out of their existing roles and responsibilities and allowed to experiment.  He feels that most faculty are not change-agent types and therefore you need a dedicated group within the university.


Eric mentioned that he knows many academics and that they fear getting fired. Even if they have new ideas that are aligned with the university’s mission or are focused on service to students — that there is adversity to rocking the boat.  He believes the culture is focused on keeping department chairs and other administrators happy (he actually said a culture of ass kissing) and that it is very similar to what he sees in large companies. It’s all about keeping the middle managers happy. And middle managers are paid to keep things running, paid to keep the status quo. They are not the ones best suited to usher in disruptive changes.


He suggests that a university form a center or institute with a new mission and new metrics—that can work outside the existing framework. Free from the context and consequences that others face for disrupting the status quo.


When I asked him what happens next—he said the center would spin off and form new startup centers bringing in new people to work in new ways—and that this process would continue to expand and that over time the organization would evolve from the legacy system that current exists into a more nimble and dynamic entity.


He emphasized that such a center would need to discover what needs to be done while things are in motion—rather than taking two years to write a plan, go through a nominating process, and figuring out how to bring everyone else along.


To sum it up: universities that are bold enough to seek a new entrepreneurial model will become the ones that everyone else wants to emulate in the future.

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