Roni Reiter-Palmon on Creativity

How should an I-O psychologist think about creativity? How do we define, operationalize, and measure it? What’s the relationship between creativity and expertise? What is problem construction and why is it so crucial to creativity? What’s the role of time, attention, and perspective-taking? In this episode, I talk to Dr. Roni Reiter-Palmon, an I-O psychologist who has spent her career studying creativity at the individual, team, and organizational levels. I learned a ton in this interview and I hope you will, too.


This transcript is AI-generated and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Department 12 Podcast, where we talk about everything industrial and organizational psychology. Joining me today is Dr. Ronnie Reiter-Palmon. How are you today, Roni?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:00:11] I’m doing great. Thank you.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:12] You research a topic that I don’t think we’ve talked about on the show before. And it’s not one that I think listeners associate  with I-O psychology, and that is creativity. Before we jump into that big topic, share a little  about your background and how you started pursuing creativity as a research interest.

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:00:30] Sure. So I’m an I-O psychologist by training. I received my degree from George Mason University and then came here to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where I’m currently the director of the I-O psychology program. And I started working on creativity as a graduate student and continue to do the work to this day. How I started it is really, I had no idea about creativity at the time.

And frankly, when I. Started working on creativity, the site guys, the, the general consensus of IO psychology was that creativity was not relevant to organizations. They didn’t care about creativity. They didn’t care about innovation. They only cared about routine work, so it was going against the grain.

 I. Came to the university. And I, and I walked into my major advisors, major professor’s office Dr. Mike Mumford, and he looked at me and he said  we’re going to work on creativity specifically. We’re going to study problem construction, which is a specific process of, of creativity. And yeah, I was a first year student.

I didn’t know any better and I wanted to work with them and I said, okay. And I started reading and frankly, I just fell in love. And I’ve been doing this research for over 30 years.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:01:48] Wow. That’s an incredible story. And I’m always impressed when someone has such a long-term dedication to a particular topic.

I can’t even imagine the depth of your expertise on this topic. So I’m glad that I get to mind just a little bit out of it for the show today. I think I have some kind of intuitive understanding of what creativity means, but  I wouldn’t really know how to define it.

So I wonder how is it that we define or operationalize creativity from an IO standpoint?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:02:18] That’s actually a great question because one of the common myths that you see when I talk to. Executives and, and people that don’t study creativity and they go, Oh, we can’t define creativity. It’s, you know, we don’t have a definition.

The reality is that we’ve had a definition that is agreed upon by researchers in this field of creativity including IO, psychologist, and management, psych scholars that creativity is Basically a solution or a product or an idea, or a process that is both new and appropriate. So it needs to have both components.

If it’s just new, but it’s not appropriate, it doesn’t solve a problem. Organizations don’t really care. Right. If it’s Solves the problem, but it’s not new. It’s not novel. Then it’s not creative. It’s a routine solution that we’ve already tried. So both components need to be there. It has to be new or novel and it has to be effective or appropriate. It has to solve the particular problem or issue that you have at hand.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:03:23] Do you think about creativity differently? At the individual, the group and the organizational level.

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:03:29] Absolutely. So I’ll give you one example. When we talk about creative individuals, creative individuals, as the research shows tend to be arrogant persistent, very independent.

All of those traits are really important when you have a new idea that has not tried and true, you know, if you’re not persistent about it, you’re going to get a lot of nos. So you have to be persistent. Creativity requires a lot of in-depth thinking and, and so forth. You have to have a degree of arrogance in believing in your own ideas.

So these are not people that are pleasant to work with necessarily. But we need them to come up with creative ideas. Now you put them in a team and you can imagine what happens, but for team creativity to happen, team members need to collaborate and work well together. So what we’re finding is that when we start to look at multilevel issues, is that the demands or requirements from at the individual level don’t necessarily map on to the team level.

And vice versa and how you work. These together is one of the greatest puzzles. We don’t have good answers yet, but we have a lot of questions.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:04:45] Does creativity seem to change over one’s lifetime ?

 Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:04:50] There is some research about creativity and age.  One of the things about creativity is that you need a degree of expertise to be creative.

 You can’t be ex creative in a vacuum. You’re, you’re just gonna reinvent the wheel. So you need to know something about the field that you’re working in.  The one study that I remember reading about creativity and age, which was published in the eighties, actually looked at it based on field. And in certain fields like mathematics, where it’s  the, the knowledge is sort of finite and you can master it.

We tend to see major creative accomplishments at a much younger age. If you’re looking at fields like literature or philosophy where life experience makes a big difference, you see creativity happening in a later ages.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:05:41] So that’s fascinating. And I think your comment about creativity requiring expertise makes me think about some of the research I’ve been reading about critical thinking lately. We can conceptually define critical thinking.

In an abstract way, separated for many kinds of content, but in reality, critical thinking is always critical. Thinking about something and background knowledge has a huge influence on how you think critically. And it sounds like the same thing is true for creativity, that you’ve got to have some expertise in some subject area and that influences  the way your creativity is expressed.

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:06:18] That’s correct.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:06:19] Is there any research on creativity at various levels of the organization? So not individual group or organizational, but at individual contributor manager executive, is there anything of note from the research that you’re aware of to share about that?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:06:38] Not directly I think the types of creativity that you will see would would differ based on levels. So, you know, if you’re an individual contributor, your expertise, is it at a particular level? Your knowledge base is at a particular level and the problems that you’re facing and therefore trying to solve creatively are the ones that you’re encountering.

Day to day. So as you go up in the organizational level, you’re probably dealing with more problems that have a longer term implications are more strategic in nature compared to the lower level .

 Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:07:15] What is it that you would like to share with the audience that maybe we haven’t gotten to yet , a couple of key findings about creativity that you think might be  a surprise.

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:07:24] I go back to some of the myths about creativity. So one is that, you know, we all engage in brainstorming and that has sort of become synonymous with creativity. And I think that’s a mistake. If we look at cognitive processes associated with creativity, there’s quite a bit that is happening.

Before you even get to the idea generation or brainstorming phase. Specifically the area that I do a lot of work in, which is problem construction or problem definition, how you define the problem what you look at. How you think about the problem, how much different perspectives do you integrate has a huge effect on the kinds of solutions you’re going to see or think are relevant, or even be able to conceptualize.

So it would heavily influence your idea generation. In fact, couple of meta-analyses. That were conducted in the last 15 years found that problem construction is the single most predictive of creativity even better than ideation, better than intelligence. So being able to think about the problem in a different way and take multiple perspectives into account is really important.

 The other on the other end moving from creativity to innovation, meaning that we implement the solution is an area that is of great interest that does not get a whole lot of attention. We generated a ton of ideas. How do we evaluate them? We do with them. You have to evaluate those ideas to make decisions

if you finish an idea generation session with a hundred new ideas. You’re not going to implement a hundred new ideas. You have to make some choices. How do you go about making those choices? And what we’re finding is that people are very reluctant to choose creative ideas. They’re very uncomfortable.

Creative ideas are risky. They haven’t been tried before. We don’t know what the consequences are. So people tend to shy away from choosing those creative ideas.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:09:29] Yeah. And it kind of ties back, I think. Well, with what you shared earlier in the episode about the creative personality being arrogant and persistent such a high risk thing requires someone to push and to believe that it can work even when a lot of other people  don’t think it’s worth the risk. So I can kind of see, you know, maybe a connection there. I have an intuition that creativity requires. Screwing around  as a person that does creative work. I have found that to come up with ideas. It’s not just sitting down and okay, well here’s a half an hour where I’m going to be creative and here’s my agenda for idea, generation and then idea selection. I kind of have to just. Not me doing anything kind of goof off.

And that’s when creative ideas are whatever it is that they’re doing in my brain, that’s when they appear. And I wonder if there’s anything about attention or, or time or anything that you found in your research so far?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:10:25] A number of things come to mind, so attention is relevant, right? So for example, one of the things  that we find.

With problem construction is that you have to first recognize that there’s a problem to be solved. You could look at a situation and you see a problem and your colleague does not see a problem at all. So attention matters. What are you attending to? What are you paying attention to informs  how you.

Think about the problem and therefore what solutions you’re more likely to come up with. Creativity does take time. We know that that’s one of the basic and consistent findings in the literature is that. Creativity takes time. It’s not that you can’t be creative under time pressure.

You know, we all think about the MacGyver situation, right? Time pressure. We have duct tape. How can we get out of this situation that can happen. But most of the time, creativity requires time, time to think about the problem, time to develop ideas, time to test those ideas. And then Creativity. A lot of times requires you to combine things, ideas that have not been combined before.

You need time to come up with those ideas, but you also need the availability of those ideas. So it might be that you’re reading a book and all of a sudden something comes at you or you’re thinking about it and you go, Oh, the sentence in the book or this, this article that I just read and this finding triggers something.

That helps you solve another problem. You need time to, you know, goof around, as you said, to be able to get those new ideas coming in. If you’re constantly looking at the same thing over and over again, new ideas are not going to pop up. Now, what is fascinating is that we call this the aha moment and it feels, you know, people or the conceptualization is that.

Oh, we just had this flash of brilliance and light bulb moment. The reality is that there’s been a lot of hard thought and processing that  is happening without your awareness, but it’s still happening. And that’s why you get that aha moment.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:12:35] You do have people that described the process as almost like they have an antenna out and in God or the universe, or whatever, deliver some idea to them.

And in the back of my mind, it’s always like, no, I think you probably had that idea. It’s just not consciously available to you, how you did that. And I use as an example,  try to remember the first birthday party that you can remember. And then you see their eyes kind of squint.

And they’re trying to remember, and I say, what is it you’re doing right now? Like what, what, what effort are you doing in your mind to try what’s going on in your brain? And you don’t actually know there’s a process there that’s going on. It’s responding to your effort in some fashion. But we don’t really know what’s going on .

And it seems like creativity might work in a similar way. What is the big unanswered question about creativity for you?  Is there a Holy grail of creativity that for the past 20 years or so, you’ve just been thinking about like, boy, if we could just figure this out, w this would be a huge leap forward for us.

 Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:13:34] There are actually quite a few things, so.  You know, we’ve seen interest in research and creativity increase, especially from the applied side. So psychologists have been studying creativity for awhile but the interest in IO and management is, is somewhat more recent. A couple of things that.

I’m particularly interested in. So it’s completely my bias as to the fact that these are, are interesting topics and sort of the Holy grail one is just pure measurement issue,  yeah. We define creativity, but now how do we measure it?  

So for example, you take a test of the very common test that we use for is divergent thinking think uses for a brick, right? Everybody encountered that while people generate a whole slew of ideas. Now, what do you do with them? So we could count how many ideas people have. That’s not really what creativity is.

We could look at how. Original those ideas are but that only tells us something about the ideation process, not necessarily about which ideas they would choose to implement or what happens before we ask the question. And there are some other metrics we can ask supervisors if people are creative.

Well, they only can report what they see if I have creative ideas and I’m not telling anybody the supervisor can’t. State that I’m creative. I can ask the person if they’re creative, but what we’re finding is that it’s highly conflated with creative self-efficacy.  What is even more frustrating is that if you take different metrics of creativity, they relate differently to different other constructs.

 We don’t have an agreed upon measure of creativity. We have a whole bunch of measures that seem to not measure the same thing. I will argue that creativity is a complex construct and these different measures are measuring different aspects. But as you read the literature, you have to be very careful and understand what they measured.

So you can’t just say, Oh, we know this about creativity. You have to know what the measure was to determine if this applies to creativity as a whole or a specific measurement of creativity.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:15:52]  So you mentioned something about how creativity is, is influenced or some part of it seems to be about how can you bring different perspectives to bear on the same issue? Is that something that you see that we should try to address by literally asking for other perspectives? Or do you see that as something an individual can do through their own sort of creative diversion process?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:16:13] Both. So I think at the individual level, and if you’re working individually, Trying to take into account other perspectives.

This is great. If you can do that. The reality though is we don’t know what we don’t know. And that’s why, you know, we see organizations putting together interdisciplinary teams  to address problems, right? Because we want the different perspectives from these different team members that have different educational backgrounds and experiences that would come to bear in terms of developing.

A product or a solution to a problem.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:16:49] When I think about process improvement, which I tend to associate more with incremental improvements, rather than, than innovation, creativity, there’s a things like lean or six Sigma value stream mapping, things like that.

Are there specific tools or processes for doing that kind of creative work that you’re aware of?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:17:07] Yes, there are.  First of all, the, the whole concept of design thinking, which developed separately from creativity. But if you look at the kinds of things that they’re doing, they, you know, they won’t reference it.

But if you look at the creativity, literature, it’s, it’s all there. It’s all been. Or, or much of it has been supported. There are creative problem solving models that have been developed that allow for development of training  in creative processes. What is fascinating about that is that it matters the training, those processes makes a big difference in how creative people.

Are able to be after the fact. So for example, when we talk about the problem construction process, which is fundamental to creativity, it’s really things like, okay, before you jump to a solution, take 10 minutes. Think about what the problem is. Write it down. Think about all the possible goals. Think about the problem from other people’s perspectives.

And all of a sudden you get a much richer comprehension of what the problem is that allows you to come up with a more creative idea, right? That is novel, but also addresses the multiple perspectives of the problem. You can do that at the individual level, and you can do that also at the team level, you can train a team in these creative processes.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:18:28] The tool or process that most of us are familiar with. At least those of us who’ve had careers in the corporate world is a brainstorming session. So you get people into a room. Maybe you give them post-it notes and you give them this task to generate new ideas.

Usually has somebody. Putting things up on the board or maybe showing them on a slide. How should we think about that brainstorming process? Is it effective or are there things about the way we do that, that we should change based on what you know about creativity?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:19:03] Great question. So, first of all, the brainstorming session is that idea generation phase, right?

So as I mentioned, you have problem construction that happens before. If you skip that everybody’s jumping straight into solutions. We might have a different understanding of what the problem is. So now we’re actually answering different questions and we’re not aware that we’re thinking about the problem differently.

So one recommendation that I would have is before you get into the brainstorming session that you should. Have a conversation with the entire group about what are the different perspectives that people have about the problem and how can we integrate those? And we know that when we integrate those perspectives, we get more creative ideas.

If we don’t integrate the perspectives, we actually get a lot of chaos. Hmm. You know, we get team members fighting over what the best solution is and not agree. And that’s a problem.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:20:02] Is there any value in having the participants generate ideas independently before there’s a group to look over their shoulder and see them.

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:20:13] You know, there’s a debate about that.  First of all, we don’t have a ton of research. Th there is some suggest that if you do it independently, you sort of get narrowed down in, in your thinking and get attached to ideas. Other research suggests that by doing it independently and then coming together as a group, you’re you give yourself more time to think about it.

And then the group time is better spent kind of. Enriching different ideas. So taking your own idea and developing it together with somebody else and merging ideas together and so on. So we, I think what is happening is that it really depends on how that process is carried out and we don’t have enough research to really tell us.

What the boundary conditions are.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:20:59] Okay. Is there any research that explores the role of status prestige or just any other social dynamics and how they affect what goes on in a group? Creativity process?

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:21:12] Absolutely. So  one of the things that happens is that when we ideate, so those brainstorming meetings.

You know, we’ve all been in one where either people are not speaking up because you know, the, the leader said something and now everybody’s going well, the leader made the decision. We’re not going to say anything else. Or you have a dominant person that is taking over the meeting and they talk and nobody else can talk.

So those issues are of concern in brainstorming meetings.  And one way that I’ve addressed them is by using electronic tools for brainstorming, where people contribute anonymously and simultaneously, right. So everybody types in, you know, think about a Google doc where you don’t know who’s typing what?

So it doesn’t have any names. And at that point you don’t know who contributed an idea and. Everybody can work on it simultaneously. So you don’t get those status effects.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:22:08] This has been a hugely fascinating. And I think personally for me, beneficial conversation to have Ronnie and I can’t thank you enough for taking time out of what I’m sure is a busy day to talk to us. If listeners would like to follow up with you, I’m going to share your Twitter account. And thank you again for being here. Really appreciate all your ideas.

Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D.: [00:22:28] I, I love talking about creativity and we haven’t even scratched the surface, to be honest, there’s a lot more to it. And so feel free to reach out to me with more questions and thoughts.