Disruptive Innovation: Higher Education


Our work with The Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) which began in August 2013 has been a unique project for Exile in that it brings to the center many crucial issues faced by organizations both inside and outside the realm of education.

First the backdrop. It is widely understood that higher education is collapsing in the United States. The business model is unsustainable; escalating costs, increasing student debt and questions around the ongoing relevance of a college education create a dramatic situation impacting all but the most elite institutions.

Beyond the financial implications, fundamental questions around how students are to be educated for the future world have become unprecedently ambiguous and complex. And then there is the moral quandary around allowing young people to leave college with severe debt.

Art and design colleges like PNCA are at the center of this situation. They are seeing a decrease in enrollment and a perception of growing irrelevance in a market economy that emphasizes engineering, math and science. Tom Manley, the president of PNCA, decided in the beginning of 2013 to lead proactively through this situation. He is leading PNCA through a complete reimagining of their business model while placing innovation at the center of the college’s activities.

Exile was hired by Tom Manley to provide leadership, strategy and innovation support in both shaping and implementing the college’s transformation. The overarching goal of the work is to position the college as a leader not only in the realm of design and art schools, but in the general sphere of higher education in the United States.


Historically, PNCA has employed a traditional approach in their training of knowledge to their students. There has been the vision of an artist living a more or less sealed-off life of creativity and art. The leadership role these young artists were to take in the greater world was not something explicitly focused upon from a curriculum standpoint. Consequently, the core mandate of the college continues to be organized around a vision whose relevance has been surpassed. Further, PNCA is organized internally like just about every other college. There are distinct roles given to faculty, administration, and board that were designed with the old business model in mind.

Now, the new business model is forced to take into account the reality that colleges like PNCA are required to train students in a host of highly human skills like relationship building, empathy, emotional balance, whole heartedness, trust, conflict resolution, self-development, and a heightened ability to engage complex, ambiguous, and “wicked” problems as part of being an artist in the world.

Making this transition difficult is that nearly all the employees of the college were trained in the old model, whether they went to art school or not. They were trained to engage with and compete in an older economy, and they were trained with a different vision of the role of the artist in the world. As a result, every stakeholder at PNCA is challenged by this big shift in how they understand their jobs, careers and responsibilities to these students.

The nuances of navigating this play between old and new have emerged as the central challenges Exile faces working with the critical stakeholders in the college.


Over the last year Exile has trained the president and his top leadership team in a host of tools and in a change-based methodology designed to support the successful creation of a business model that is sustainable and resilient in the face of systemic challenges facing the college both internally and externally.

The concrete steps of our engagement and impact are as follows:

  1. Exile worked with the President to help him gain clarity around the principles of resiliency, transformation and disruptive innovation. This body of work lasted approximately four months.
  2. We then engaged a small group of top leaders. This group acquired crucial skills:
    1. Learned new language grounded in resiliency principles
    2. Developed a larger problem recognition statement for the college
    3. Built strong bonds of trust and solidarity with each other
  3. In the next step we engaged a larger leadership group and trained this group in a similar grouping of skills. This work built strong bonds of trust and a high quality of communication between these leadership groups and the president.
  4. We targeted a number of groups in the college – faculty senate, IT, staff council – to expand this work into.
  5. We helped to redesign the work plans for this team of top leaders to better reflect the extraordinary requirements facing leadership in this moment at PNCA. This redesign will eventually funnel down into more groups within the college.
  6. We have begun to lay down a strategic design for explicitly reimagining the business model of the college specifically and higher education generally.

The tools and practices we have provided:

  1. Using commitments and assessments as a language base to build powerful authentic trust.
  2. Body-based tools that train in a heightened mindfulness that supports both relationship building and innovative strategy creation. A form of mindful self-awareness that prepares leaders to engage escalating levels of pressure and complexity.
  3. Emotional resiliency practices designed to reduce stress while increasing the potential for individual accountability and capacity
  4. Conflict utilization skill building.
  5. Practices that support what Exile calls Cognitive Vulnerability, which simply means the ability to stay intellectually open and curious even in the face of ideas that challenge one’s core values and beliefs. These practices are crucial for an organization in the position such as PNCA that is mandated to disrupt its business model
  6. Tools that move people from trying to persuade others through argumentation – a central tool of the knowledge economy – to the ability to employ Interpretive Speech Acts that catalyze the enrollment of others in a larger world of possibility. It is a question here of enrollment vs. arguing.
  7. Strategic models that support fundamental change at the level of disruptive innovation.