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Jenny Baker
/ Categories: TIP, 2021, 583

The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Kimberly Adams, HumRRO, Stephanie Zajac, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Tara Myers, American Nurses Credentialing Center

“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, we explore academic–practitioner collaboration between a professor and former student in a leadership development project. The article is interview style and includes reactions from two students involved in the work.

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Merging Science and Practice:
Creativity and Innovation in a Leadership Development Program

Lindsay Bousman, Roni Reiter-Palmon, Kevin Mitchel, and Ryan Royston

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Were the Players?

Academic

Dr. Roni Reiter-Palmon is the Varner Professor of Industrial/Organizational (I-O) Psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). Her research focuses on creativity and innovation in the workplace at the individual and team level and on leading for innovation. She is the editor of the book series Palgrave Studies in Creativity and Innovation in Organizations and is associate editor of both European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology and Frontiers: Organizational Psychology.

Student Assistants

Ryan Royston is a personnel research psychologist at U.S. Army Research Institute. He graduated from UNO with his PhD in I-O Psychology. He has worked in consulting, education, and research settings with a focus on leading creative teams, leader identity, and creative mindsets.

Kevin Mitchell is a talent management senior analyst at Nebraska Medicine. Kevin is responsible for the strategic direction of employee development and partners with others to implement leadership development programming. He completed his master’s and PhD in I-O Psychology at UNO.

Practitioner

Lindsay Bousman is owner and principal consultant of Intentional Talent Management, LLC., focusing on simple and purposeful talent management solutions. She has over 20 years of experience from external consulting and in-house leadership roles in organizations such as Expedia Group, Starbucks, and Microsoft. Her PhD is from UNO.

What is the project context?

Lindsay: While working internally for a former employer, I worked with a consulting firm to co-create a leadership development program for our directors and senior directors. We were entering our second year of the program, serving 200 leaders per year, in a 9-month cohort-based design. We covered a wide range of leadership skills and competencies and included several assessments. The overarching curriculum and content design were based on a needs assessment via observations and themes from previous talent-review discussions and interviews with our senior leadership team about consistent leadership gaps.

This program was created out of several organizational needs and objectives, including building a broader internal leadership pipeline. We felt we could teach knowledge and capabilities currently missing within the internal applicant pool while retaining internal company- and industry-specific knowledge, which was much more difficult to find externally. We also wanted to centralize our leadership development program, which allowed for efficient scalability in administration, ensured mixed global employee representation, and provided a large platform to consistently teach more emerging leaders the skills needed to advance internally.

How did the project begin?

Lindsay: As part of a cultural shift toward experimentation and incremental improvement (a.k.a. “Test and Learn”), and due to internal expectations to collect data, along with my I-O inclination to rely on data, I had tracked the 360 results from the first year. The data from participants’ leaders, together with succession discussions, illustrated areas in which we could improve the program and better align with our competency model. Specifically, we intended to focus less on areas of existing strength and more on closing skill gaps with content not otherwise available.

How did you decide creativity was a necessary element to add?

Lindsay: In the first workshop, we would lead attendees through an exercise to plot their top strengths and developmental areas (as identified by our competency model and 360 assessment) on a series of wall-size posters. We wanted to visualize trends within the cohort. With a group report that showed averages and ranges for each cohort, the trend indicated that creativity and innovation was a necessary, important, but lagging capability. Participant feedback also indicated that they had been rewarded for their own creativity, but as people and team leaders, they did not know how to elicit this from others. Some even saw it as a natural talent (you either had it or didn’t) rather than a skill that could be developed.

How did you find an expert, and why include an outside academic view? How did you sell this choice to internal stakeholders?

Lindsay: Coincidentally, I attended UNO for my graduate work, and Dr. Roni Reiter-Palmon was my advisor. I was familiar with her research in creativity and leadership, and we had established trust.

Collaborating with an academic was an intentional choice on my part. Our partner consulting firm had a module on innovation we could add, but I wanted to share the science from a primary source. My participants could be skeptical at times, especially about learning something like creativity, so I wanted to go deep and encourage critical thinking. This was better reinforced with a technical expert in the room instead of a facilitator without deep expertise. On a practical side, we were up and running with most of the delivery and agreed that this approach fit the content and culture. Our employees loved to be involved in test-and-learn experiments, and this method would be welcomed.

Aligning with our test-and-learn culture, using data to determine the topic, and addressing participants’ needs for primary-source expertise enabled me to get approval from leadership and stakeholders relatively quickly.

What other considerations were important in creating this collaboration?

Lindsay: A secondary consideration for me in working with Roni was the ability to give graduate students hands-on experience with a large program. I appreciated when I was in school working with I-O professionals in practice and wanted to return the favor.

There is a vast difference between what is learned in school and how a leadership development program is organized and delivered globally in a public, for-profit business. I wanted Ryan and Kevin to experience it firsthand, from the corporate NDAs and contracts to communicating with leaders and facing their questions in the moment, as they learned and worked through problems together.

What was your goal in pursuing this collaboration?

Roni: When Lindsay approached me with the idea, I was very excited. First, it was an opportunity to apply the research that I have been conducting on the cognitive principles that underlie creativity. These principles can be translated into applications that can be trained. The specific cognitive processes on which I chose to focus appear in all creativity models and have been the most researched. These are problem identification and construction, idea generation and brainstorming, and idea evaluation and selection. Although many training programs focus on idea generation, few include the other processes. However, these processes are necessary for effective creativity work. This project provided me with the occasion to determine how these processes can be put into practice. Ultimately, the training was based on research about situational factors that improve the processes and creative outcomes overall.

I also wanted to give students an opportunity to see how the science can translate into practice and to gain experience in developing and deploying training.

What information did you need from the organization to ensure that you were successful?

Roni: Before we started to collaborate, it was important for me to understand the needs of the organization in terms of this new training initiative. What brought this on? Why was this important? What did the organization expect in terms of outcomes? These questions allowed me to determine if our content would benefit the organization.

As the external academic perspective and expert, how did you make the research consumable for a business audience?

Roni: Work on the cognitive processes associated with creativity provides information about what approaches, instructions, and ways of thinking facilitate creative thinking and creative performance. This material naturally lends itself to practical applications like training. One important aspect was our coverage of the problem-identification-and-construction process. This process does not typically get attention in the “lay” literature on creativity. However, the research is clear—people who spend time thinking about the problem from different perspectives before trying to come up with ideas to solve it come up with more creative ideas. This is a simple, effective exercise that is easy to bring back from training to the office.

Still, it was important to be present and to use the information in a way that would make sense to those not steeped in the literature without “dummying it down.” I worked closely with Lindsay to ensure that the materials were at an appropriate level, understandable, relevant, and in line with previous workshops. For example, some exercises and examples were adjusted to reflect the company’s business challenges, such as industry-related problems. We also shared academic research results in more of a story format, making it interactive and asking questions about what employees expected to happen in a study rather than in a factual lecture-based teaching design.

If you were not constrained by resources, what would you have done differently?

Lindsay: We received manager ratings about participants’ progress in self-selected development focus areas. If able, I would have taken all or a subset of the 360 items and reassessed participants after the program. This would allow us to assess progress specifically on the areas we intended to change.

I also would have included participants in the workshop design, inquiring about what they were most curious about in this area, the blockers or misconceptions they had, and their expectations for behavioral change. That can be a vulnerable place to be, but, ultimately, the experience is better when we know participants’ expectations.

Roni: Not so much doing it differently, but I would further explore data to show the effectiveness of the program. We were able to gather a self-evaluation of learning from a small number of participants and measures of creative self-beliefs before and after training. Even with the small number of responses, we were able to show learning and change, which was encouraging. Having a more robust sample and additional evidence would have been great.

From my perspective, seeing how I could translate the research into practice was invaluable. In addition, the participants of the workshop provided further insight into the topic of creativity as it applied to their unique situations, allowing me to learn from their experiences and develop additional research questions.

As students at the time, what were your greatest learnings and surprises?

Ryan: Assisting with this program provided a great opportunity to see research applied directly in an organization. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was understanding how to communicate scientific research to a nonscientific audience in an engaging and practical manner. Something that pleasantly surprised me was seeing participant reactions to the training. Initially, I could see how some might see this as “just another training” and be skeptical about whether they could increase their creativity. However, as participants gained a greater understanding of the nature of creativity and how they can demonstrate creativity in their jobs, their interest and engagement grew.

Kevin: The greatest learning was the challenge of designing a 2-day course around creativity skills. Starting from such a broad and research-laden area, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to translate the theory and techniques into practice. Further, we had never built a multiday facilitated session. Using the level of detail and consideration needed to ensure participant engagement helped me develop skills that I use in my current role. A surprising aspect was the willingness for leaders to engage with the academic research. We didn’t include many explicit research topics, but the leaders readily engaged and asked for us to bring in the research. Their willingness to navigate that space and the ambiguity that accompanies it added to the impact.

What is next?

Lindsay: This program continued to evolve over time and was revised further the following year to reflect an intentional cultural shift in support of a new business model. In that approach, elements of creativity-and-innovation research were integrated into the exercises to solve new business problems and to focus on the most critical new skills necessary to succeed in the new business strategy. In the future, I would like to see more collaborations combining creativity research and evidence-based practices into methods that are gaining popularity in HR and employee-experience work, such as design thinking or agile development.   

Roni: It was very rewarding to see my own research and that of others put into practice. I would like the opportunity to do so again for other organizations. Further, I would like to be able to conduct research that would contribute to our understanding of creativity training and how it helps facilitate creativity in organizations. Most of the creativity-training literature focuses on short-term evaluation; it does not evaluate whether the training successfully influences long-term behavior or whether organizations see benefits from such training.

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