Disruptive Innovation – Why we all need to be Trojan Mice

A few weeks ago, a member of our Advisory Group, Maha Bali, was featured on the Leaders and Legends of Online Learning podcast (or LLOL for short – a great show, by the way – check it out). In addressing the thorny problem of changing practice, Maha described a situation all too commonly experienced by educators. In an extra-institutional setting, we can be open, expansive and radical in our aspirations and thinking but when we return to the institutional setting we are more often than not constrained by structures, policies and process.

Maha’s story reminded me of an experience fifteen years ago when I was working in the field of digital inclusion. I was one of a group of twelve ‘leads’, each employed by a different public body, who were tasked with bridging the digital divide in a city region. There was no doubting the need, and we duly developed a strategy with cross-sector buy-in, but when we tried to implement change within and between our institutions there were always more urgent priorities.

That was when a colleague introduced the concept of Trojan Mice. She suggested that, rather than trying to solve the problem with one major initiative – the fabled Trojan Horse – we should each run smaller test initiatives in our respective organisations and see what worked. Our objective was to find out what gained traction, share the learning and focus on building momentum, adapting to circumstances and changing direction quickly to overcome resistance. It was the mindset shift we needed and we achieved more in the next three months than we had in the previous year.

As educators, we need to become Trojan Mice to improve the impact and effectiveness of what we do. Large, fully designed programmes, top-down initiatives and grand institutional strategies are good for setting direction but simply not agile enough to cope with the pace of change in higher education. We must liberate and capitalise on the knowledge and experience of grass-roots educators to find and build on what works and create self-sustaining change.

Critically we need to be there to support each other through the challenges of implementation. The role of the extra-institutional space is not just to be an ideas lab, but a safe place where the barriers and frustrations can be discussed and our energies and focus renewed.

Three factors underpinned the success of my little Trojan Mice experience, and they have in turn influenced the philosophy and ethos of OneHE.

The first is the importance of providing an open, safe place for those committed to change where they can engage on their own terms. It is in this safe place, unfettered by process and structures,  that we can be challenging and radical and think differently. The OneHE community is such a place where educators who are passionate about learning and teaching have the freedom to think, debate and ask questions as individual educators – free to explore the roads not yet mapped by institutional strategies.

The second is the need to capitalise on the wisdom and experience of a deliberately diverse crowd. That there is diversity within a group is not the same as being inclusive; we must actively seek out different world views and encourage engagement. At a time when countries are becoming increasingly protectionist, we must be intentionally diverse. For the OneHE community, having a globally diverse membership is important. Our Advisory Group is drawn from all continents to help us achieve this aim.

The third is to create as many opportunities as possible to make connections and support each other in making change happen. Implementing change is hard – it requires tenacity, resilience and courage. We each need to draw on a bank of goodwill and support from peers, particularly those who have done it before. That’s why we are always looking for new and better ways to help educational innovators to connect and collaborate.

The scant literature that exists on Trojan Mice focuses on the value of small tests to determine what works. Of equal importance, if not greater, is the existence of shared ethos and values. Since OneHE launched in December, we have been fortunate to engage with educators who are passionate about learning and teaching and helping each other. In our small way, our role is to help these Trojan Mice to share disruptive, positive innovation and for this innovation to gain scale and momentum.