Eduvation Blog

Ownership & Initiative

Ken’s conversation with Mark Frison, president of Assiniboine Community College in Brandon Manitoba, continues this week as they explore ways that higher ed leaders can empower and inspire their people to take ownership and take initiative, to propel innovation on campus.  (If you missed the first part of this interview, about encouraging PSE participation on the prairies, see

Mark suggests 3 concrete ways to nurture a culture of innovation on campus:

1)  Make Initiative an Explicit Value

ACC has adopted organizational values that encourage all staff and faculty to “Be Passionate. Take Initiative. Deliver Results.” Specifically, the college values urge people to “challenge the status quo and take calculated risks without fear of failure.” Mark believes it is critical to state explicitly to the campus community that risk is inevitable when you innovate.

2)  Invest in Talent through PD

ACC’s talent management action plan, instituted in 2011, has worked to increase its investment in professional development from 1.25% of payroll to almost 3%.  Given the fiscal environment, colleges need to maximize the capabilities and training of all staff.

Ken observes that on most higher ed campuses, there is a disconnect between senior administrators who embrace innovation and seek transformative change, and front-line staff who are anxious about making mistakes, and focused on meeting the short-term objectives of their immediate supervisors.  The further down the organizational hierarchy you go, Ken argues, “the more doing nothing is the safest course of action,” and he wonders how best to transmit the entrepreneurial mindset throughout the organization.  But Mark also observes that front-line staff and faculty are actually the ones most likely to have innovative ideas about serving the student, and thinks the more immediate issue is how to translate ideas UP through the organization.

3) Formalize the Idea Generation Process

That’s why ACC implemented a system of written “decision notes” for middle managers, encouraging them to describe new ideas in detail, and make their business case. Training middle managers to write these briefing notes has been “incredibly helpful at dislodging these ideas,” getting ideas onto the table and either moving them forward, or setting them aside.

Mark and Ken agree that there is a “double whammy” of risk aversion in a public-sector, academic institution.  Committees tend to preserve the status quo, and often aren’t even empowered to make decisions. Ultimately, Mark emphasizes, “you do need individuals to feel that they can take risks.”  In many colleges, Ken argues, there is a “learned helplessness” that discourages a sense of personal ownership of decisions or processes. Mark recalls a board member once asking him, “if you owned this thing, what would we be doing differently?” Thinking about your institution with a sense of ownership, and a willingness to take informed risk, engages everyone’s ideas and passions, and encourages an entrepreneurial campus culture.


Mark Frison was appointed President of Assiniboine Community College in August 2010, after serving 5 years as president of Great Plains College and Cypress Hills College in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.  He holds a Masters of Industrial Relations from Queen’s University, and undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Business from Cape Breton University (UCCB at the time).  He has served as Executive Director of the Association of Saskatchewan Regional Colleges, and on the board of Colleges & Institutes Canada.

Every week, 10K explores a world of higher ed innovation and bright ideas. So you don’t miss a thing, please be sure to subscribe!

Special thanks to Shaun Cameron for coordinating the onsite recording at ACC. If you would like to host an onsite episode of Ten with Ken, please see more information.


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