By Joern Fischer
The Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana has been an exciting place – a dozen or so new professors were hired over the last few years, and the Faculty landed a number of sizeable grants. In a way, we’ve successfully taken the first few steps from “nothing” to becoming an increasingly interesting institution. But what’s next?
This question is not unique to Leuphana. Many places go through phases of growth, and such phases are typically quite exciting – you can do stuff in a growing institution and help to actively shape it. But once the institution gets increasingly big, the challenges change.
Once institutions get bigger, talk tends to increase about becoming part of this network or that one; and of raising this mega-grant or that one. Initiatives are created and branded – but increasingly, there’s nothing behind it but size. Think of some of the really successful labs you know of: when was a good time to be part of that lab? Mostly, the exciting times happen on the way to being “big”. Once a place is big, it’s kind of unsinkable, but it also lacks the excitement of a growing institution.
To me, this has important implications for institutions such as Leuphana. Our aim, I think, should not be to grow big, but rather, to stay innovative. If that is successful, a bigger size may come as a by-product, but growing for the sake of growing is going to be counter-productive from an innovation perspective.
And hence, when it comes to “key” networks and “important” mega-grants, I remain skeptical. As you enter the big networks, and go for the mega-grants, politics takes over from innovation. You find yourself in meetings about strategizing how to raise which money, rather than in meetings about cool ideas. Being aware of such patterns, and steering against them, seems to be essential to keep institutions interesting and innovative for more than the first few years of growth.