Innovation Junkies Podcast

Sarah Goforth on The Role of Collaboration in Innovation

The Jeffs talk with Sarah Goforth, Executive Director of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the University of Arkansas. They dig into: Leadership & empowering volunteers, collaboration & its role in success, & how to drive positive, lasting change with small teams.

Jeff Standridge: This is Jeff Standridge, and this is The Innovation Junkie’s Podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next half hour, we’re going to be sharing specific strategies, tactics, and tips that you can use to grow your business, no matter the size, no matter the industry, and no matter the geography. Weekly, we’ll bring in a top mover and shaker, someone who’s done something unbelievable with his or her business, and we’ll dig deep. We’ll uncover specific strategies, tactics, and tools that they’ve used to help you achieve your business goals. Welcome to The Innovation Junkie’s Podcast. 

Hey, guys. If you’re looking to put your business on the fast track to achieving sustained strategic growth, this episode is sponsored by the team at Innovation Junkie. To learn more about our GrowthDX, go to innovationjunkie.com/growthdx. Now let’s get on with the show.

Jeff Standridge: Hey, guys. Welcome to The Innovation Junkies Podcast. My name’s Jeff Standridge. 

Jeff Amerine: Hey, and this is Jeff Amerine. Glad to be back.

Jeff Standridge: Hey, me too, man. How are you doing?

Jeff Amerine: I’m not bad for a Tuesday. It’s sunny outside. We’re both above ground. No complaints.

Jeff Standridge: That’s right, sitting up, taking nourishment. Everything’s good. 

Jeff Amerine: Exactly. Exactly. We’re real lucky to have a pretty amazing guest on today. How about I give you a little bit of her background?

Jeff Standridge: Let’s do it.

Jeff Amerine: Okay. Today we’ve got none other than our friend and colleague and associate, Sarah Goforth, who is the executive director of The Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at The University of Arkansas. She also serves as an adjunct professor at the Sam and Walton College of Business. She’s got a really storied background. She’s an experienced startup coach, former science communications executive. She touches the lives of faculty, staff, and alumni of the University of Arkansas. She helps oversee the McMillon Innovation Studio and the Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub. She’s really kind of a key cog in the whole entrepreneurial and venture ecosystem scene in Arkansas. She’s had an incredible background in the past, where she spent time at amazing places like The Discovery Channel, Smithsonian Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Just really an incredible career up to this point. And she’s also published in a number of national magazines like Smithsonian and a variety of other science publications. So we are really honored and lucky to have her here. Arkansas was lucky to get Sarah back, and here she is.

Jeff Standridge: Welcome, Sarah.

Jeff Amerine: How are you doing this morning?

Sarah Goforth: Hi. Good morning. What a nice introduction. Thank you, Jeff. 

Jeff Amerine: You’re welcome. Most well deserved, for sure.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah. It is awesome to have you with us and to have you as a partner of ours, not just for the podcast but in life and the work that we all do together.

Sarah Goforth: Yes, likewise.

Jeff Standridge: So we like to start off occasionally, if I remember, many times I forget and just jump right into the heart of the issue, but we like to kick around a random musing. And today, it is our coolest work moment. So Sarah, what’s your coolest work moment?

Sarah Goforth: Man, that’s a tough one. I’ve had a lot of jobs that I really, really loved and found myself in these moments where I’m like, “I just kind of can’t believe I’m here.” I felt that way teaching class last night. The class I teach combines STEM students and MBA students. And some of them bring technologies. They’re inventors. And I’ve just got to pinch myself that I get to work with them. 

But the thing that comes to mind is when I was at The Smithsonian. And we all have childhood heroes, and mine was a guy named David Attenborough. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. But he was a naturalist, and on BBC had many, many series about natural history and the history of the planet and the natural world. And I just loved him. He was the soundtrack to my entire childhood. I love this guy. And I was at a function my first week into my job when I worked at The Smithsonian, and he was there.

And my boss came up to me, brand new boss, and said, “Didn’t you tell me you really admire David Attenborough?” And I’m like, “Yes, yes, yes. I can’t believe I’m in the same room with him.” He’s like, “You’ve got to go say hi.” And so I did, walked up to him, and had a chance to tell him the impact he had on my life and talked to him for a good hour. And it was a very memorable moment. So advice to people out there, don’t be shy when you see somebody. It might be your only chance to actually go up to them. And everybody’s human, and people love to hear they’ve made an impact in somebody’s life.

Jeff Standridge: Very cool, very cool. Jeff, how about you?

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. I was sitting here trying to struggle to figure out what I was going to say about this one. I would have to say there’s been so many in the past 13 years that have been pretty spectacular. And I think the ones I gravitate towards the most are . . . a good example would be when you see a company or a team that you’ve worked with do something really spectacular. And it’s hard to single one of those out. But I would say one in particular that was particularly special was seeing the bounce back that Ryan Frazier had after he built DataRank and took it to Y Combinator. And it didn’t quite end up the way everyone had planned through no fault of his own.

And then he bounced back and built an incredible company called Arrived Homes that received investment from Jeff Bezos and others. So it was spectacular to see the resilience and the tenacity that he exhibited in bouncing back, building something great again as the second time go around. And again, I had little or nothing to do with that, it was just very gratifying to see a former student, somebody you’d mentored and coached, do something fantastic and be resilient enough to bounce back.

Jeff Standridge: Very good, very good. So you all know in my former life that first of all, I’m a recovering academic and that in my former life, I was a professor at UAMS. And I studied actually successful people. What is it that differentiates top 1% performers from middle 50% of performers? And I learned that one of the things that differentiates successful people is, they have a future orientation. They know where they’re going. They look out three, four, five years, and they take action to get to a specific destination in that future. And we do a lot of that work, Jeff, with organizations and helping them define the vision of the company. 

But I learned that before I found it out academically and didn’t realize it until I reflected. When I started respiratory therapy school, I literally walked into Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and I walked into the Director of Respiratory Therapy’s office. I said, “When I graduate the university, I’m going to come over here and I’m going to fly on your helicopter. And so if you want to go ahead and give me a job now, you can do that. And then you can have me trained up so that when I graduate this program,” which was a 13-month program on the top of my bachelor’s degree, then I’ll be ready to fly. I was already an EMT. I was already working with an advanced life support ambulance, and so I had patient care.

And she said, “Well, we’ve got an oxygen technician role that you go around, make sure all the oxygen tanks are full.” And I was like, “Yeah, here’s my number. Give me a call if something comes up. I’m going to work over at UAMS.” So I worked over at UAMS June to November. In November, I was doing clinical at Children’s and got a call from the director, said she wanted to talk to me. And she said, “I wanted to let you know that we have a job for you.” And I went, “On the helicopter?” “No, no. But it is a patient care position. It’s Monday through Friday. No weekends, all evenings, Monday through Friday evenings.” And that was in November.

I finished, I graduated June 30th, so this was in November before I graduated. In April, the head of the transport team came to me and said, “Hey, you still interested in flying on the helicopter?” Gave me the job, started training me. My training culminated or ended at the same time as my education from the university, and graduated June 30th. And July the 1st, I was flying on the helicopter team. And so it helped me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I look back on it, it was one of the coolest moments, because it’s when I realized that when you plot a future three years out, whether that’s individually or organizationally, and you take the steps to get there. Magic happens sometimes. 

Jeff Amerine: Back to you, Sarah. How about giving us more of your origin story?

Jeff Standridge: Yeah.

Sarah Goforth: Oh, my origin story. Well, Jeff’s story about that experience got me thinking about my own, the moments in my career that really brought me where I wanted to be. And honestly, I tell this story to students all the time. My career started out with a series of failures because I thought . . . I was a Biology major in college, and I thought I was destined to be a researcher like my parents. And when I started a PhD route in molecular biology, I learned very quickly that learning about science is very different than doing it. And I just did not have the attention span of a researcher. I didn’t want to focus on a narrow domain. So I dropped out of that program and I started freelance writing, and I loved that, so I went to journalism school.

And this was the dawn of the internet age, and I had in my sights the New York Times. And I thought, “I’m going to write on the science desk of The New York Times” and fought for that goal and didn’t get a job there but did get a job at The Dallas Morning News after I finished graduate school. But the newspaper industry was really suffering from competition online at that point. This is circa 2002, 2003, something like that. And not soon after, The Dallas Morning News cut their science section and laid off the entire science writing staff and the editor who’d been there for a long time.

And the market was flooded with science journalists, and there were no jobs. The jobs at New York Times, there were 2000 people vying for it. And so this was another failure. And I thought, “I’m not going to go back to grad school a third time. What the heck am I going to do?” But I really did have a purpose. My purpose, my mission, the thing, Jeff, to your point about having something in your sights for three years, I wanted to be on that bridge between science and society. That’s what I loved. That’s what I cared about. I’d always thought I would do it as a researcher, and then as a journalist. But I needed to be open minded about how I did it.

And I ended up working for the National Science Funding Agencies in DC, because they had lost their mechanism for reaching their audiences, which had been the science sections of newspapers. And they were trying to figure out the internet. And I had to be willing to learn all kinds of new skills. I had to learn how to code websites, and I had to learn how to write for online audiences. This was before social media, but I had to learn how to produce podcasts and things like that. But the work was boundless once I started to develop those skills, so I moved to DC, and that started everything. I mean, I started a company, because I was getting larger contracts than I could handle as a sole proprietor. And I had to figure that out as I went. I did not have a business background. 

But what I tell students all the time is, the one thing you can expect in your career is that the industry you work in will be disrupted in some way. Technologies will emerge. The economics of the industry will change. Things will be automated. And if you have a central guiding mission and a curiosity and a willingness to learn new things as technologies and patterns change, you’ll be successful. It’s all about finding the problems you can solve for the organizations you care about. So for me, it was a set of failures that really set me up for the career that I love.

Jeff Standridge: Failure’s only failure if you quit.

Sarah Goforth: You bet.

Jeff Standridge: Otherwise, it’s just feedback. Right?

Jeff Amerine: That’s exactly right. Well, Sarah, you’re in such a central role as it relates to innovation and entrepreneurship. And one of the key things we want to talk about today is: How are academic institutions of higher learning, what is their main role in innovation? And how do you see what you do at the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation fitting into that whole picture?

Sarah Goforth: Yeah. I think research institutions in particular, so publicly funded large research institutions of the sort that the U of A is, have a unique and incredibly important role in society. And it’s not just about what the majority of the public sees, which for the most part is the educational component and the sports and the role they play in local economies. That’s central, and that’s really what I focus on day to day. I’m an educator, and so I’m always thinking about how do I equip students with the skills and relationships and wherewithal to be innovators and entrepreneurs? 

But the thing that makes research universities unique is they do something in society that almost virtually no other organization does, and that’s fundamental research. So this is a body of research that is based on pure curiosity, hypotheses about how the natural world works, about how the physical world works, about what are the mysteries of biology and chemistry and history and art that we haven’t figured out yet. And a lot of times that research seems very obscure if you’re looking at it from the outside. It may be pointless, because you can’t imagine why it would be relevant, why the taxpayer funded entities would fund it. But this is the foundation of all innovation.

So if you take the COVID vaccine, for example, this is a vaccine based on a molecule called messenger RNA, which is the mediator between DNA and proteins in the body. That COVID vaccine can be traced back to research that was done three decades ago in a Hungarian lab where a scientist was just trying to figure out how this thing worked. What is mRNA? How does it translate from this language of genetics into the proteins that make us all up? And this person wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to invent a vaccine. I’m going to invent new drugs or diagnostics.” This person was funded and driven by pure curiosity and a desire to know more about biology. Without that body of knowledge, the vaccine never would’ve been possible though. 

And so that is very long range thinking, and it’s something that has always distinguished the United States in our innovation capacity from other countries, who don’t invest in that fundamental knowledge building. And it’s something that universities uniquely cultivate. And the thing that’s my favorite thing about being on a higher education campus is that you have both kinds of people. You have the basic researchers, who are really about . . . And not just researchers, but people who are explorers in all the disciplines, including the humanities and the arts too, who are driven by this fundamental curiosity and a quest to move human knowledge and understanding forward. And you have people, and these are the people I tend to work with day in, day out, who are change makers, who want to do something with that knowledge. They want to solve problems. They want to start businesses. They want to move society forward. And so there’s this really rich interplay between discovery and action and change. And you just don’t find that anywhere else. 

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. And your group serves as that kind of boundary layer, that kind of catalytic layer between the external forces in the entrepreneurial scene, the external actors, and all the stuff internal. And there’s this old saying that there’s no “i” in “team.” Talk a little bit about the team that you’ve put together to really make the magic happen.

Sarah Goforth: Yes. I love that way of looking at what we do. We’re the sort of interplay between those two things. We are. We help a lot of technology students figure out, okay, I’ve invented this thing, and it’s amazing and unique and special. But what do I do with it? What’s the market opportunity? How is it relevant to society’s needs? We play that role in helping them develop that skillset and connect with other people that can help them advance an idea or advance a technology. 

In terms of the team, I had a mentor. Everybody who knows me has heard me talk about this person. You’re probably all sick of it. But I had this mentor named Kate Ford. She was a senior product manager at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And she taught me something that I think I never . . . It would’ve taken me a long time to learn, and I was in the middle of my career, early 30s. She taught me that your team is whoever you can empower. And that doesn’t mean that they have to report to you. It doesn’t mean that they have to be in your organization. It means you have to understand what they’re trying to do, what their goals are, what they’re trying to accomplish. And if you can empower them to do that, they will join your team. 

And so the team that we built, yes, we have an incredible group of people who work in the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. But our team is really the entire entrepreneurial support community in Arkansas. I take the two of you, for example, I don’t pay you anything, but I cannot think of a time when I have called either one of you up, or our other Jeff, and said, “Hey, I’ve got this team. They need help with X, Y, Z. Or I want to stand up this program. Can you help me?” I can’t think of a time when you did not say, “Yes, sure. Absolutely. I’ll be right there.” So we really benefit from that broader community who share a commitment to developing entrepreneurs in the state. And I think of us all as being on the same team, which allows us to do a lot.

Jeff Amerine: That coalition of the willing. Right? 

Sarah Goforth: Yes.

Jeff Amerine: The coalition of the willing that expands the strength of what you’re able to do for sure.

Jeff Standridge: I’m not sure who said it, but someone once said, “If you think you’re leading, and you look behind you and no one’s following, then perhaps you’re just talking a walk.” So let’s talk about that empowering others, because I learned a long time in my career, a long time ago with 500 people spread across five continents at one time, that I wanted to be in a job where I was able to lead a lot of people but not have very many report to me. That’s a different kind of leadership. Right? It’s a different kind of leadership when you’re leading volunteers. So talk about your experience in leading volunteers and this concept of empowerment, and how you empower them to be successful.

Sarah Goforth: Yeah. Well, going back to my days at The Smithsonian, this is where I put my mentor Kate’s advice into action. So I was Head of Communications for the Natural History Museum, which is a very large institution, has 400 scientists and hundreds of other staff and a huge mission. Seven million visitors a year to this place. And the core communications team was four people. And we had to do everything from all the marketing, all of the digital media, the PR, media relations, everything that fits into communications. Plus, we had taken on a business development role for the museum, so we were thinking about intellectual property and revenue and all that. So a tiny little actual team, huge institution.

And one of the things that I realized early on is that everybody in this whole museum was passionate about science communication. It’s why everybody was there. And the prior, let’s say, my predecessor, that person’s strategy was really to lock down and set a lot of rules to prevent people from doing things the wrong way, so like building a website that didn’t reflect the brand, or putting out materials that could create some PR risk, et cetera. And so you had to go through this tiny little narrow funnel to get to your audiences, and there was just this well of frustration built up in the museum because the thing people were passionate about, they were prevented from doing.

Well, I looked around and I said, “We need a coalition.” And so we started basically just a biweekly meeting of all the people who were passionate about communicating to our audiences outside of the exhibits, digital media, and stuff. And we created tool kits that made it easy for them to do that in a way that stayed within the brand and met the museum’s goals. And I invited them all to be part of the communications team. And it was incredible. Overnight, we went from a staff of four people to an army of 30, 40 people, all doing the work that I then got to report up the chain and say, “Hey, look at everything we’re accomplishing.” And so I have . . . And it worked, it really worked.

Is there a little bit of a risk to that approach, because you don’t control everything? I guess, but it’s not nearly as large as the risk of trying to control everything, which really stamps out innovation and breeds frustration. So I brought that to the U of A as well, not just thinking about external partnerships, but internally. I don’t see my job as building an entrepreneurship institution from the ground up and just grow and grow. I see my job as to connect and empower the many, many people on this campus who work in that space from different directions, and do whatever we can as a central team to serve them with tools and resources. And sometimes that’s funding, sometimes that’s just simply support and visibility, and help them do things in a way that will have impact to the degree that they want and need our help. And if they don’t want and need our help, great. More power to them.

Jeff Amerine: Hey, folks, we’ll be right back with the episode. But first, we want to tell you about a limited opportunity to take advantage of our GrowthDX. For a limited, we’re offering a free strategy call to see whether our unique diagnostic tool is right for you. Go to innovationjunkie.com/growthdx to learn more.

Jeff Standridge: So you brought that same format or that same approach to the university. And you’ve also brought it to the entire state in our entrepreneurial support organizations where you do something very, very, similar. Talk a little bit about that.

Sarah Goforth: Yes. Well, I would say when we started meeting regularly as an ESO network, it was really, I came in and recognized I’m not the first person to try to build the entrepreneurial community here. There was an incredible foundation that had been built over many years. And Jeff Amerine, I recognized immediately, because every person I talked to mentioned his name, that he was a cornerstone of it. And so I had lunch with Jeff one day. And I said, “Hey, I really want what we do at the university to be complementary to what you built through Startup Junkie and your other efforts and not ever compete. You’re like the secret weapon that we have, because what you do is free for students and faculty too. So maybe we could have a regular get together.” 

And there were a couple other people working in this space in Northwest Arkansas, so it was three or four of us I think who initially started meeting together. And then it just grew organically as the entrepreneurial support community grew, and as we met other people working in this space, we just invited more and more people to the meeting. And we did it in person. This is hilarious to me, I wasn’t more innovative at the time. We did it in person with the conference phone in the middle of the table for people calling in. And then COVID forced us to go virtual. It’s like, “Oh, this is so much better, because we’re all across the state.”

And so now it’s a monthly Zoom meeting, but it is a wonderful way to stay connected. And a lot of times, the simplest of things, like somebody saying, “I’m launching a new program. Can you help me get the word out?” You’ve got 40 people who all share your mission, blasting that to their audiences and constituents. It’s a really powerful tool for marketing and collaboration. And then recently in the past year, we’ve started inviting an entrepreneur to come speak to that group. And this is fun because it’s basically like … And I always say this to the entrepreneurs, “Come speak to us for five or 10 minutes. You will never have an opportunity to be in one room with more people who are motivated to help you.” 

Jeff Amerine: That’s right. Yeah.

Sarah Goforth: Literally, everybody’s guiding purpose in this meeting is to help you succeed, so they love coming and presenting and I do too.

Jeff Standridge: Well, all of those stories have this concept of collaboration running through the center of it. You use collaboration a lot, and collaboration I believe is a cornerstone of leadership. Amerine and I talk a lot about we will collaborate with anyone who will. How are maybe some other ways that you’ve used collaboration or the role that you see it play in your success over the years in what you do today?

Sarah Goforth: Yeah. You’re right. It is my default. I think like both of you. I’ll collaborate with anybody who asks. And the filter I use is: Does this help OEI really achieve its goals? And if it doesn’t, sometimes I’m just honest with the person I’m talking to. I have a lot of priorities, and I do have to make decisions about where we allocate our time. But I still generally try to help them, even if what they’re trying to do isn’t in line with our goals. I would say one thing that I probably haven’t experienced in my career until maybe the past year and a half is the limit of collaboration. 

So the downside of collaboration, it’s not a big downside, but you do have to confront it from time to time. Is it is less efficient in terms of decision making then a more traditional top down approach, where you control everything, because if you’ve got 15 partners on a project or a program, and you’re all collaborators, and you’re partners. You have to figure out how to make decisions. It’s not, “Somebody’s the boss, and that person gets to make the call.” And so your time can be spread a little bit thin. And I’ve had to think about, as our team has grown and we’ve gone from serving 40 students a year four year ago, to 700 students a year now in our programs, so very fast growth. Our team has tripled.

As you grow, you do have to think about the role that structure and decision-making process plays in your organization. And I know I’ve been joking lately. I don’t know if I should say this publicly, but I’ve been joking lately, we’re at that stage in the J curve where a lot of startups die, because we’re . . . We, as a team, we’re used to being highly collaborative, and everybody in each other’s business, and everybody wearing all the hats. And now we just don’t have the time to do that. Those of us who own programs have to run our programs, and make the decisions. So I would say that’s the limit of collaboration. And I think the way to balance the challenge of that transition is just to be honest and straightforward about it. And if it’s about time and efficiency, just to be clear with your partners that, that’s why you’re changing the way that you’re operating.

Jeff Standridge: I think your story demonstrated this. Covey once said that with people, fast is slow, and slow is fast. Right? You talked about collaboration on the front end is very inefficient. But if done well and the consensus is built, and the direction is established, it takes you a little longer on the front end. But on the back end, you’ve grown from 30 students to 700 students. Staff has tripled. And so it was slow on the front end, but much faster on the back end than the alternative.

Jeff Amerine: And Sarah, some of that is about trust as well. When you’ve got this echelon of people you’re working with and you know that generally you’ve got aligned incentives, the collaboration is almost implied in that you trust people to do the right thing, and so you don’t have to talk about everything that they’re going to do, because you know that the ultimate objectives are aligned, and you’re going to be in good shape ultimately. They’re going to be doing something that’s additive to the overall game plan. 

Sarah Goforth: Yes.

Jeff Amerine: We experience that a lot. There’s lots of times when Jeff and myself and Brad, who are the three senior leaders in the organization, there’s an implied trust there. We talk about everything, but we don’t have to talk about everything. because we know that each one of us will run our parts of the business in a way that’s going to be additive and overall aligned with what we’re trying to achieve. And that is kind of the secret to scaling as well. Scaling any kind of organization is you have to have people there that you trust. You start off with aligned objectives, and then you let them go do their thing. Pretty amazing.

Sarah Goforth: Yes.

Jeff Amerine: And you’ve done an amazing job. Listening to you talk about the growth from 40 to 700, for those of us that have kind of been in it or part of it, you just don’t realize how where we were five, 10 years back, versus where we are now and the amount of impact. That’s pretty amazing sight to see for sure.

Sarah Goforth: It’s the power of a great team. 

Jeff Standridge: So tell us what’s in the future for the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, rather.

Sarah Goforth: Yeah. Well, we have a strategic planning meeting Friday, so I’ll know more after that day. I will tell you we have some decisions to make, I think. As we’ve grown, we’ve hit an inflection point, as I said before. And one of the decisions we have to make is: How big do we want to be as an organization? Do we want to keep growing so that we ultimately . . . Our mission is to serve every student at the university. Do we really want to do that through our programs? Or do we want to have other mechanisms where we have hand off points to, let’s say the academic units to scale? 

So an example of this is, I love it when this happens, sometimes we will create a program based on needs that we see in the student body. And it will be an experiment, and we’ll test. Are we really making an impact? Are we helping them get jobs as innovators? Are we helping them develop really innovative products and services? Are we helping them start companies? And do they love it? It’s extracurricular, so they’re not required to do it. Do they love it? Are they flocking to this program? Did the word get out? And if it’s successful, then it becomes a class.

And inside an academic department where it’s a class, it can scale because those are revenue generating functions in the university. So I really like that model for OEI because it allows us to stay small enough to be agile and responsive and experimental, which is really the strength of our team, and it’s how I like to operate. And that’s one approach to scale, but we need multiple approaches to scale if we’re going to do that, if we’re going to stay as small as we are and not try to grow.

Alternatively, we could shoot for the stars and grow into an institute, or a school, or something along those lines. If you look at the Lassonde Institute at the University of Utah, it’s like an OEI on steroids. This is an entrepreneurship and innovation, demand-driven, student-focused institute that serves students at all stages across the entire campus. And they have, in their case, they have one huge facility. It could be the case that you have four or five smaller ones. And they have probably a student population that numbers in the many thousands that they serve. So I really see us as being at a decision point in regard to those two directions, and I’m going to take that to the directors on my team and say, “Help me figure this out. What’s our vision?”

And there’s a lot that we can’t control, including funding. Takes money to do the latter thing, but I’m not sure that’s what we want. We need to figure that out first. I’m curious on your thoughts on which approach we should take, or third avenue.

Jeff Standridge: I think it’s a great question. I’ll be interested to see kind of where you come out in that regard. But I really think the wisdom, the collective wisdom of your team is going to be the one that helps you really determine what’s right for OEI and what’s right for you in this moment in time over the next three years. Do you have a horizon that you’re planning three years, four years, five years?

Sarah Goforth: We need to think quickly because our work is very strategically aligned with the new I3R Institute. So I know you both are following this. This is a new research institute, the center for, Institute for Integrative Research, which was funded last year, and will be stood up over the next three years. And it has a strong focus on entrepreneurship and commercialization. So this institute will recruit star faculty from all over the world, and graduate students, post docs, and trainees who are interested in technology development, interested in company formation. 

And so our strategy needs to be in place so that I3R, as that strategy comes into focus, and that new director is hired, they know how to lean on us and what they need to build themselves. So we definitely need to make decisions about our strategic plan quickly, like over the next few months, and align ourselves with I3R, because they’re going to need the foundation that we’ve built. And I want it to be clear to them how they can rely on us, how we can help I3R meet its goals and really make the most of the opportunity of these incredible people coming here to make Arkansas the destination of their research enterprise.

Jeff Amerine: If you were a client, and because we facilitate this type of stuff, we would take you through a process to say, “We’re going to start out talking about purpose and mission, answering the why.” And that’s pretty clearly articulated. And then we’re going to work with you to think about the vision. What’s this thing want to be? And whatever your time horizon is, how do you define the core values? And then you get into the specifics of: What are the long-term targets and the short-term objectives and the KPIs, and how do you measure it? But it all starts with that imagining process really of: What do we want to be?

And sometimes you go through an assessment of assets and aspirations and the constraints. But the thing that’s going to be particularly challenging for you all is the sky’s the limit in some respects. I mean, you’ve got this great foundation. This thing can be whatever you want to be, so you have to almost sit there and do an imagining process to think about what your situation, your life, the externalities will be like if that, whichever vision, whichever direction you decide to go, manifests. Some of it gets down to not just the impact. But how are you going to feel about what you do every day? 

Sarah Goforth: You’re so right. And so we’ve just closed out our last five-year strategic plan. And we had a well-articulated mission vision, goals, KPIs, metrics, all of that. And the mission is I think our whole team believes that it is true and pure, and we shouldn’t change a word of it. The funny thing about looking at our vision is I think our opportunity is bigger now than we knew that it would be. We have space for our vision to grow, so I do anticipate we’ll spend a lot of time there in our meeting. And having been through and led a lot of strategic planning over the course of my career, I’ll say I think I’m very comfortable with the idea that you’ll write your strategic plan, you’ll develop that framework. But as opportunities emerge and circumstances change, you can edit it. Nobody says this thing is written in stone. It’s not published in The New York Times. It’s an ever evolving document that should be revisited all the time. And it can shrink and it can grow.

I mean, COVID changed a lot of our work. It changed a lot. We invented a lot of new programs during that year, because the needs of our constituents had changed. Couldn’t have anticipated that. But it is important, to your point, to understand and share as a team where you’re trying to go and what your North Star is.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah. Jeff and I have a couple of rules with strategic planning. We tell all of our audiences, rule number one, no three-ring binders allowed. And rule number two, it’s not a substitute for leadership judgment, because leadership still has to make a judgment. It just gives you a framework within which to make that judgment.

Sarah Goforth: I love binders. I’m such a school supply person.

Jeff Standridge: Well, listen. Sarah, every time I talk with you, I could just go on, and talk with you forever. But as we round out this conversation, I want to ask you one question. A lot of what you do in the OEI and in your other various roles within the entrepreneurial ecosystem is not unlike a chief innovation officer or some kind of a responsible leader, senior leader who has responsibility for innovation within an organization, where they have a very small team, if any team at all. Yet, they’re responsible for influencing the entire organization. Let’s give those listeners that may be in that particular situation one or two tips that you’ve learned in terms of how you drive positive change that sticks when you don’t have a big team to do it. What one or two tips would you give them?

Sarah Goforth: Number one, no surprise to you all, relationships. And that takes time. It takes listening. It takes walking across campus and having the meeting in somebody’s lab or in somebody else’s office. The relationships are the foundation of all innovation. I believe that. I even think that’s true in basic research. It’s as fundamental to discovery as you can get. Science is done through relationships, just like every other human endeavor. So relationships, and then following that, coalitions. So aligning your goals, your vision, in your role as a leader, with those who have similar priorities, and making sure you’re clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, and understand what they’re trying to accomplish and where there’s overlap in your little Venn diagram.

I believe that you can accomplish more that way than you can through top down, traditional waterfall style strategic planning and leadership. Secondly, I would say, think creatively about your sources of funding. And so it depends on where you work, but a lot of research institutions, I’m trying to be delicate about this, universities, other institutions that are maybe nonprofit or publicly funded, they don’t actually have a clear line of sight to their end goals the same way a large company does. A large company needs to generate profit, please its shareholders, please the board, et cetera.

In an institution like a university, there are a lot of goals, and sometimes they are competing. And so as a leader, you can define how you will evaluate your success and how you will grow your program based on that success. And if you are aligning your success metrics to the goals of your funders, you’ll have a lot of opportunity for growth. It’s not first nature inside a university, but the people who do that well can do a lot.

Jeff Standridge: Keeping in mind our key stakeholders sounds a little bit like customer discovery and understanding what your key stakeholders want and need.

Sarah Goforth: Totally. Totally. 

Jeff Standridge: Well, Sarah, it’s been a fantastic time visiting with you, as always. We appreciate you for taking the time. And we wish you the absolute best. And as always, whatever we can do to help, please call us.

Sarah Goforth: Thank you both so much for having me. I’m sure I’ll talk to you very soon.

Jeff Amerine: Absolutely. 

Jeff Amerine: Thanks for coming on, Sarah. It was great.

Sarah Goforth: Later today, probably.

Jeff Standridge: That’s right.

Jeff Amerine: See you.

Jeff Standridge: This has been another episode of The Innovation Junkie’s Podcast. Thanks for joining. 

Jeff Amerine: Hey, folks. This is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying The Innovation Junkie’s Podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now, and please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us. And don’t forget to share us on social media.

Change The Trajectory Of Your Business

Our GrowthDX package has been responsible for massive improvements in many companies. Some thought they had it figured out but had blind spots, while others knew they were missing the mark but had no idea where to start.

This is your chance to make significant breakthroughs in your organization. Don’t miss out!