Designing for a growth mindset

I'm working periodically with a small team of people in what we loosely call a learning set – basically they set a topic, I get some discussion ideas together on it and then we spend a couple of hours together exploring it and reflecting on its organisational design implications: they've set 'the growth mindset' for our next meeting.

The way I tackle this type of challenge is to just jot down a bunch of things that spring to mind on it. In this case, I've got Carol Dweck, improv, Kagan/Lacey, Marilee Adams, play, laughter, learning organisation: it's a process a bit like opening the fridge and seeing what's in it that you can concoct a delicious meal from.

So now I'm looking at the list of discussion ingredients. Hmm – is there a delicious meal equivalent here, or will I have to go and forage for other things? I'll start with what I've got and see what happens.

The phrase 'growth mindset' was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential, first published in 2008 and just out (January 2017) in a revised edition.

Her theory suggests that intelligence and ability are not fixed characteristics, but can be changed and developed and grown. It's a very attractive, and popular, theory that is being extensively tested in schools. The UK, for example, has a project called Changing Mindsets currently running.

It's easy to see why it might be seized on as organisational initiative to help change culture, improve management skills, increase productivity, and so on. But it is no 'silver bullet' as some have pointed out and Carol Dweck is fully aware of.

She makes the point that people are not of either growth or fixed mindset, saying: 'Let's acknowledge that (1) we're all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, (2) we will probably always be, and (3) if we want to move closer to a growth mindset in our thoughts and practices, we need to stay in touch with our fixed-mindset thoughts and deeds.'

With this caveat in mind, taking the phrase literally, 'growth mindset' could simply imply being a continual learner, open-minded, non-judgemental and willing to try things out. People who are curious, who look out for opportunities and consider things as a 'offer' that you can choose your response have a 'growth mindset'.

I'm just finding out that improv is a great vehicle for learning and practicing this open-mindedness type of response. Robert Poynter, in his book, Everything's an Offer, tells a great story about Danny Wallace someone who decided, that for a year, he would say 'yes' to everything that came his way. (His story was later made into a film).

A different tack on being open to learning and growing is taken by Kegan and Lacey in their work on change. Several years ago they proposed 'Seven languages for transformation'. There's a useful summary table here. Their work has developed into a set of broader techniques and methods for learning and growing. Take a look at their book An Everyone Culture which presents and discusses 'the simple but radical conviction that organizations will best prosper when they are more deeply aligned with people's strongest motive, which is to grow. This means going beyond consigning "people development" to high-potential programs, executive coaching, or once-a-year off-sites. It means fashioning an organizational culture in which support of people's development is woven into the daily fabric of working life and the company's regular operations, daily routines, and conversations.'

Marilee Adams work is similarly around language use, specifically about the way we ask questions – she describes 'learner questions' and 'judger questions' and offers suggestions on what type of questions lead to learning and growth.

A completely different tack on learning and growth is through 'play'. Children learn through play and so can adults – though sadly we tend to lose that facility – 'play brings joy. And it's vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships.' Author and physician Stuart Brown notes that 'Particularly in tough times, we need to play more than ever, as it's the very means by which we prepare for the unexpected, search out new solutions, and remain optimistic.' Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.

Linked to this is laughter with some evidence that laughter defuses situations and offers opportunities in the workplace to re-think and re-group.

Then there's the whole learning organisation genre with multiple theories and approaches. See a literature review here.

I think enough 'ingredients' to discuss a growth mindset. The intriguing part of the discussion will be on how to design an organisation to encourage it.

What additions would you make to the list of method for developing a 'growth mindset'? Can organisations be designed to encourage it? Let me know.

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