Several of our team attended the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) 2019 conference in Belfast. I attended the “Creativity as Methodology” workshop which got me thinking about tools that I use that could foster creative thinking in our Research Development Team. I wanted to empower our team to improve the quality and quantity of research projects and proposals. To do this I considered how we could best support Research Leads at School level with our experiences as research developers for the widest benefit across research disciplines. The below blog details my experience using a Theory of Change framework to develop an informed strategy within our team for supporting research leads.

Choosing an approach

When developing research proposals and strategies with researchers I like to work backwards from the goal. I’m also a visual learner, so like to use diagrams to map things out. I was therefore looking for a diagrammatic and goal-oriented approach to developing our team plan for building our relationship with our school leads. I decided to take a modified Theory of Change approach to co-developing our plan. This approach is commonly used to co-develop impact and change and is something I have used previously to visualise and map pathways to impact for GCRF proposals.

Planning the session

With the aim of working better with our School Research Leads I drew up a rough Theory of Change template. I simplified the typical approach to include 4 sections: our overarching goal (aim) for working with the schools, what changes (outcomes) need to happen, what can we do as a research development team (outputs) to produce the outcomes, and what resources (inputs) do we need. I provided the template to the team with the aim included so they had a clear goal but with the freedom and flexibility to generate their own ideas from outcomes to inputs. We were ready to have our development session!

How it worked (it was fun!)

To start developing back from the aim, on a large piece of paper with the framework drawn out I asked our team to place post-its of ideas for outcomes, then outputs and finally inputs. There were a range of ideas, many that would not have been something generated by one person alone and came about as a result of vigorous discussion, a little venting and a lot of laughing.

Allowing a safe space to discuss the challenges and opportunities of our roles and be candid fostered a free-flowing conversation. There were conversations about what we, as research development professionals, can and can’t affect and how we could influence and support activities.

The Result

With this approach we have created a programme of activity for our team to support our School Research Leads that will provide new (to us) approaches, advice and guidance to benefit our researchers. The freedom to develop our ideas and bounce them off one another is what has made our plan specific and achievable.

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