A reflective essay on a decade of using strengths-based teaching through Unitec Institute of Technology’s New Zealand Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship located in the Faculty of Creative Industries and Business, Auckland, New Zealand.
I teach a course Innovation and Entrepreneurship BSNS 5391 that now comprises one compulsory component of Unitec’s Bachelor of Business degree. The course is novel in several respects. However, here I reflect principally on my use in the course of a strengths-based teaching approach informed by the principles of positive psychology, and the online StrengthsFinder 2.0 ‘talent’ assessment instrument.
The course was designed several years ago. Until 2010 it was an elective component of the degree. The course tended to attract a several international exchange students from Europe and the Americas, and local students very focussed on creating their own small enterprise. With typically five students per year, the course was taught on a tutorial basis.
When the course was made compulsory this year, I expected a larger class size. In fact, about 40 students enrolled. I anticipated that there might be some reluctant participants who would assume the course was a small business administration course. More than half indicated their ambition to work in a corporate, whilst less than one-quarter indicated their interest in either starting a new enterprise, or working in a small business. Consequently, I state BOLDLY in the course handbook that the course focus is innovation in existing companies, corporates, and new ventures. Secondly, that the agent of innovation is ‘someone’ called an entrepreneur … or intrapreneur if you act within an exising enterprise. Thirdly, that your role may be that of someone who collaborates with the entrepreneur to act as a high-performing new venture team.
This course DOES NOT help you set-up and operate a small business. This course helps you realise how you can create a new venture and develop that venture into a BIG BUSINESS (BSNS 5391 Course Handbook, 2010-2).
Two of the eight learning outcomes for the course include:
- Identify and contrast the characteristics of the entrepreneur with the student’s own talents, strengths, and interests
- Identify the characteristics for an effective new venture team
I develop and assess these learning outcomes through two pedagogical approaches. First, I require the students to construct a Professional Learning Agenda (PLA). The PLA is intended to help the students - and their future teachers and mentors - guide their personal and professional development based on the confluence of their natural talents, strengths, experience, and ambitions. The PLA includes the student’s ‘SMARTER’ Action Plan informed by the feedback they gain from an identification of their natural talents. The Clifton-Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 instrument is used to begin students’ journeys towards identifying their talents. The PLA also includes a reflective essay compiled from reflective blogs students keep throughout their study time. To ensure that all students are ‘reading from the same page’ students gain academic credit for providing evidence that they have completed the StrengthsQuest assessment by the third week of the 14 week semester. They also subscribe to a StrengthsQuest Community Grid that presents the talents of all other students in the class.
Secondly, I require the students to undertake an innovative and enterprising task in groups of seven people. (They have the option of sub-dividing into two smaller groups). The specific task requires the students to design and deliver an experiential training workshop selected from the topics of the course schedule. During this task, the students share knowledge of each others’ talents as a basis for improving their team working productivity.
In essence, the design of the course is informed strongly by my previous teaching and consulting experience using Revan’s Action Learning principles. Learning partners (students) engage in a team-based project constructed with slightly ambiguous, ‘non-trivial’ specifications. That is, there is no single or simple formula for success with the project assignment. Through their journey, the students increasingly self-direct and share their learning. Concurrently through self-reflection and talent-based self-assessment the students learn about how they can best contribute in a new venture team context. About halfway through the course, my role shifts from that of ‘sage on the stage’ to mentor, coach, safety expert, and a Simon Cowell-like ‘Idol’ judge of the students presentations.
Gallup defines formally a talent as a ‘naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be applied productively… they are ways in which one ‘thinks, feels, and behaves instinctively, unintentionally, and without even noticing it. They are the essence of one’s natural self’ (Liesveld & Miller, 2005, p. 49). Gallup describes 34 talent themes. The Clifton-Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 instrument identifies the five strongest talents for each individual. Examples of the descriptions of my five talents are presented elsewhere in this blog, here.
Discovering the StrengthsFinder instrument
I was introduced to the StrengthsFinder instrument in 2000 when I read what I regard as a ground-breaking text on entrepreneurship by Bolton and Thompson: Entrepreneurs: Talent, Temperament, Technique (1999, 2004). I knew of Thompson’s previous work on strategy: I had cited his strategy framework in my article Auditing the Strategic Plan (Mellalieu, 1992). I was delighted to learn that Thompson was scheduled to visit Unitec from the United Kingdom on an academic sabbatical exactly when I had scheduled the launch of a new MBA-like programme in business innovation and entrepreneurship (MBIE). Accordingly, I scheduled Thompson to co-present with me the first course in the 12-course MBIE programme Foundations of Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
As the course progressed I learned that Bolton and Thompson were proposing a model of entrepreneurship development radically different than the ‘received wisdom’ that informed the design of the MBIE programme description. The ‘received wisdom’ was that anyone could be taught to become a succesful entrepreneur, a common conception found in many - mostly US - texts on the subject. That received wisdom leads to the notion that anyone can rise from ‘rags to riches’. Bolton and Thompson suggest an alternative perspective in relation to what they define serial entrepreneurs: those people (or organisations) that ‘habitually create and innovate to produce something of recognised value around perceived opportunities’.
Bolton and Thompson argue that serial entrepreneurs should possess a certain mix of talents amplified through learned technique, and moderated through self-managed temperament. For instance, see Bolton and Thompson’s Nature-Nurture model of talent development (2004, Figure 2.2). Specifically, Bolton and Thompson’s notion of talents stemmed directly from their access to - and extension of - strengths-based research by the Gallup Organisation that had been conducted over some three decades.
As I understand the history, researchers at Gallup had been asked to explore what accounts for the several magnitudes of superior productivity that arise from the best performers in, say, a sales team when compared with average performers. That is, in a given company, the best salespeople might achieve two, five even 10 or 20 times the sales results of the average saleperson in the team. Why? That question led Gallup researchers to a broader question: What factors give rise to sustained, outstanding, near-perfect performance by individuals in comparison with average performers? Out of this research question - and the results of several million interviews - arose the talents-based StrengthsFinder instrument and the strengths-based approach to personal and professional development. For more about the development of the instrument, see The Clifton StrengthsFinder: Research FAQs (The Gallup Organization, 2005).
On the couch: my introduction to personality and psychometrics
About ten years earlier, around 1990, I had begun my own journey as a reflective practitioner with a Jungian analyst. He treated me with both Rorschach Ink Blots and the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator (MBTI). I found my MBTI results (INTJ) epiphanic in helping me recognise that the much of the world outside my professional experience as an industrial research scientist was inhabited mostly by ill-informed, un-strategic, super-sensitive, touchy-feely indecisives unable to apply logic and analysis in their decision-making! Beam me up, Mr Spock! Take me to your leader!
As I write the blog version of this posting in Tumblr, and follow the Zemanta-suggested link to Wikipedia, I discover that, indeed, INTJs are a rare species. Now I understood why my sister asked family friends if I was an alien when I was a child! People with the INTJ archetype comprise less than one to four per cent of the adult population. Kiersey describes the INTJ as the Mastermind archetype exemplified by Newton, Maynard-Keynes, Ulyses S. Grant, Eisenhower, Ayn Rand, and Stephen Hawking (Wow!):
Masterminds are certain that efficiency is indispensable in a well-run organization…. If they encounter inefficiency - any waste of human and material resources - they are quick to realign operations and reassign personnel. Masterminds do not feel bound by established rules and procedures, and traditional authority does not impress them, nor do slogans or catchwords. Only ideas that make sense to them are adopted; those that don’t, aren’t, no matter who thought of them. (Kiersey)
The foregoing is a reasonable description of the consequences of my undergraduate education in industrial engineering, a PhD in applied operations research/management science, and a post-doctoral residency in the Sloan School at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As an illustration of my efficiency, I completed my four years engineering degree in three years - and gained a first class distinction - something of which I am most proud! Aside: These achievements illustrate what Gallup calls the ‘Learner’ theme. Did I mention I gained a Best Sapper award for my military training as a field engineer/military entrepreneur (TF Intake 16), and a Masters in Public Policy between my undergraduate and doctoral programme when I - temporarily - decided to become a international peace and development diplomat?
However, by 1982 I had discovered ‘strategic efficiency’: the notion that it is more important to conduct the correct activity, rather than to conduct incorrect activities efficiently. (In non-Global English terms, it is better to do the right thing, than to do things right. Ugh!). My self-directed journey into the domain of strategic thinking began after I participated in a two-day experiential training workshop conducted for the New Zealand Business Planning Society by the director of Philips’ (Eindhoven) Strategic Orientation Directorate. By 1987 I had facilitated the creation of several strategic development plans using the Philips Strategic Orientation Round (SOR) process, and was appointed to my first position as a university academic teaching strategy at Massey University.
Clifton and Nelson note that ‘yearnings, rapid learning and satisfactions reveal the presence of a talent, especially when they are felt early in life’ (Clifton & Nelson, cited in Gallup, 2005, p. 196). Clearly, strategic thinking was a yearning I discovered serendipitously towards the end of my doctoral studies in 1982. That talent was confirmed subsequently through my own Strengthsfinder results in 2001.
After ten years’ psychoanalysis, a retest with the MBTI found that I had added a smidgen of ‘P’ - Perceiver - to my type. I had become an INTP. Now I was slightly less inclined to exercise myself by ‘jumping to conclusions’ impatiently. Yet I recall that the full INTP description had less face validity to me in comparison with the startling illumination of my original INTJ classification. However, as I now glance quickly at the Wikipedia description of INTP I do see some strong resonances with my behaviour. For instance, I reflect wrly on the remark that:
With a knack for improvisation, the INTP can cause no end of frustration to ESTJs and ISTJs. These types generally cannot make the same intuitive leaps that come naturally to the INTP. On the other hand, they are quick to note (sometimes smugly) when the INTP must stop in the middle of a project to puzzle over the previously discarded instructions, which the STJs read at the start.
When all else fails, read the instructions!
Team building and leadership
By 1994 several colleagues at Massey University’s College of Business had designed and introduced a novel course that taught students how to design and lead experiential and outdoor team building activities. As a teacher of management, leadership, and team-building, I happened accross Meredith Belbin’s Team Role Indicator through the Experiential Training Company, ETC when I applied for a consulting position with that company. With my colleague Sarah Leberman, we used the Belbin approach to give personal and collective insight to our student teams in the Massey University course Action Learning Management Practicum (ALMP) (Leberman & Mellalieu, 1996; Mellalieu, Leberman, Bradbury, & Chu, 1994).
In our assessment, the Belbin approach extended on the sophistication of the MBTI on several grounds:
- In completing the Belbin assessment, one receives 360-degree feedback from other people in teams with whom one has previously worked. A score, ERSA, measures the realism or degree to which one’s self-assessment is matched by the assessment of others. For example, five colleagues and I rated my ability to coordinate action as one of my top three (strong) Belbin roles (Belbin Coordinator). Alarmingly, my senior professor and head of school (A. V.) did not rate me high on this role! He did agree with the others that I was a creative Plant and Resource Investigator.
- The Belbin computer system also generates a ‘personality profile’ for a proposed team based on the team members’ Belbin profiles. This analysis can prove enormously helpful in identifying potential productivity disrupters in a team’s composition. For example, the presence of two creative Plants (or in StrengthsQuest terms, those with the talents of Ideation and Strategy) can reduce significantly the possibility of the team achieving productive outcomes because of their competition for having their ideas accepted and implemented by the group: the Apollo Syndrome. This syndrome has certainly affected several student teams and to a lesser extent myself. I have noticed the syndrome as quite prevalent in ‘mental institutions for the intellectually over-advantaged’ such as the research laboratories, universities, and policy research think-tanks in which I have worked. (One of my students (L. S.) presented that term to define a university! Most appropriate given my current institution was a the former Carrington Psychiatric Hospital!)
As part of the MBIE programme, I hoped to draw on my experience using Belbin’s instrument. My intention was to help students (learning partners: average age 39 years) form productive optimal teams based on a cross section of team roles.
However, as part of the MBIE course Capabilities for Innovators, students completed the Margerison McCann Team Management Index (TMI) under the direction of my co-teacher Noel Burchell. The TMI analysis revealed that nearly all our students were dominant in three very closely-related TMI types (Burchell & Robertson, 2004):
- Creator-Innovator - Imaginative; Future-oriented; Enjoys complexity; Creative; Likes research work
- Explorer-Promoter - Persuader, “seller”; Likes varied, exciting, stimulating work; Easily bored; Influential and outgoing
- Assessor-Developer - Analytical and objective; Developer of ideas; Enjoys prototype or project work; Experimenter (BR Training, NZ)
Perhaps expectedly, our selection procedure and advertising had recruited students who were ‘One of the few who think differently’ - our slogan. We had recruited what we sought. What we had not anticipated was the interesting challenge of managing a class of such proto- and practicing entrepreneurs. Herding cats? That is another story.
Previous to the Capabilities course, John Thompson had introduced the students and myself to the StrengthsFinder assessment. Whereas the TMI classified most of the students into the three foregoing archetypes the StrengthsFinder instrument revealed far greater and subtle variation amongst our students. One simple explanation: the TMI indicator is based on the respondent replying to 60 questions, whilst the StrengthsFinder is based on 180 forced-pair self-descriptor items. For instance, my partner and I rated very similarly in terms of the TMI classification system (Assessor-Developer), yet under the StrengthsFinder we obtained virtually no overlap in our set of talents.
Given this experience, I was curious to explore the contribution of StrengthsFinder in my teaching. I recall my key motivation being my excitement about the strengths-based approach and its underpinning by the new positive psychology movement co-founded by an author I had already read and later met in January 2001: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. On the other hand, I had been somewhat over-analysed by psychometric tests by this stage. I still regarded the Belbin Team Role system as the ideal for the team development purposes I planned for the MBIE degree programme.
Consequently, since 2001 I began to explore gently using StrengthsFinder in my teaching and family’s development. For example, I discovered that one of my daughters possessed the caution-disposed Deliberative talent. I realised, therefore, why we came to blows when my “let’s do it now” Activator talent wanted her to take urgent action on one of my paternal suggestions. I learned to retreat and let her deliberate and ponder my suggestions. When she decided to quit university after two years of her four-year degree, and take immediate overseas experience, I trusted without hesitation her decision confident in her applying her other talents for future-oriented and strategic thinking. After two years work experience in London, followed by concluding her degree (transferred from Auckland University to London) I look forward to being the proud father of a Fine Arts (Hons) graduate working in a liquid London-based merchant bank! That is a story of understanding someone else’s talents and supporting the decisions they make.
To be continued
In future parts I propose to: (See: here)
- Detail my experience utilising StrengthsFinder in my large, 50-student entry-level bachelors programme course BSNS 5391 Innovation & Entrepreneurship
- Discuss the strengths and limitations of psychometric indicators that measure a specific dimension, such as ‘achievement orientation’ and ‘entrepreneurial orientation’. I justify why these indicators should be augmented by use of a general and professionally-validated assessment instrument such as MBTI, TMI or StrengthsFinder.
- Elaborate on my preference for using StrengthsFinder in comparison with several other psychometric indicator tools, such as MBTI, TMI and Belbin Team Role.
- Explore future strategies for scaffolding (articulating) the use of a psychometric indicator throughout an entire degree programme, such as a Bachelor of Business, and the Faculty of Creative Industries and Business at Unitec.
Bolton, B., & Thompson, J. (2004). Entrepreneurs: Talent, temperament, technique (2nd ed.). Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann. Retrieved from http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=k9vd8JjQKLgC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false
Burchell, N., & Robertson, P. (2004). Profiling the Entrepreneur: Application of the Team Management Profiling Questionnaire as a Means of Profiling Candidates for a Master’s Degree in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Presented at the Australia and New Zealand Academy of Management Conference (ANZAM).
Frederick, H., Thompson, J., & Mellalieu, P. J. (2004). New Zealand Perspectives of International Entrepreneurship. In Handbook of Research on International Entrepreneurship (pp. 533-549). Cheltenham, GL, UK: Edward Elgar.
Liesveld, R., & Miller, J. A. (2005). Teach with Your Strengths: How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students. Gallup Press.
Leberman, S., & Mellalieu, P. J. (1996). ALP-DevCo and the Action Learning Programme: A Trojan Horse for Moving from Mystery to Mastery - Training educators to use experiential education using an isomorphically-framed training-products development company. In Proceedings of the Outdoor Education Conference: From Mystery to Mastery (pp. 66-83). Presented at the Outdoor Educators Conference, The Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, Turangi, NZ: Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre of New Zealand. Retrieved from http://web.mac.com/petermellalieu/Teacher/Examples/Entries/2007/10/8_Training_educators_to_use_experiential_education_using_an_isomorphically-framed_training-products_development_company.html
Mellalieu, P. J. (1992). Auditing the Strategic Plan. Managerial Auditing Journal, 7(1), 11-16. doi:10.1108/EUM0000000001772
Mellalieu, P. J., Leberman, S., Bradbury, T., & Chu, M. (1994). Opening the black box: Beyond adventure-based management education programmes. Discussion paper. Palmerston North, NZ: Department of Management Systems, Massey University. Retrieved from http://web.mac.com/petermellalieu/Teacher/Examples/Entries/2007/10/7_Should_outdoor_adventure_learning_be_incorporated_into_business_education.html
The Clifton StrengthsFinder: Research Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). (2005, February). The Gallup Organization.