Part III: Mindsets & Priorities
Humans are naturally yearning for stability, constancy, and predictability because it provides security and comfort. So why change leadership style and prioritisation if things used to work before? The world has changed and so has leadership. Let’s see which mindsets are outdated and need to be shifted to step out of the comfort zones.
This is the third part of the series ‘Nutrient-Poor Soil’, covering further aspects related to priorities and mindsets of executives that need to change to cope with ubiquitous changes. If you haven’t done it yet, take a look at the introduction, first and second part to get more context and deeper insights into other issues.
The natural desire for safety and a touch of overconfidence make us both stuck in the comfort zone and avoid any risks. Doing nothing, though, is a much higher risk in the medium run. If we don’t act on our own, a catalyst is needed. However, every change is actually a catalyst and a reason to reflect & rethink mindsets. I don’t mean out-of-the-box thinking — there can’t be any boxes at all — but new ways of thinking about values, business models and the organisation. Let’s take a look at some aspects below.
It is not intended to make someone tackle everything at the same time. Rather, to highlight the needed changes so that one can become aware of them and respond accordingly. Furthermore, it is not about brainwashing or forgetting the past. Not at all. It is about learning from experiences and adapting to new contexts. Some shifts are quite tough and will probably overwhelm at first. But one thing at a time. This article also brings this blog series to a close by referring to the previous ones.
The following is mainly based on own experiences but was fortunately confirmed by ThoughtWorks, Corporate Rebels and the Association for Talent Development 🙏. All the research in this domain underlines the importance of the topic.
In many cases, the C-levels’ own interests, political agendas and short-term goals such as the annual revenue are prioritised. As mentioned earlier, long-term impacts on the company and its employees are often ignored. I would like to see the well-being of the culture and the employees coming first. Maybe it will help to get back in touch with employees and connect with the internal world instead of looking at external outcomes. Transparency over privacy was another important topic that I addressed some time ago. Beyond that, many other topics are worth considering.
Networks over Hierarchies
A while back I introduced the idea of force-directed networks in companies. That is based on the consideration of replacing hierarchies, which have several disadvantages and are based on outdated ways of thinking. Hierarchies tend to form rigid structures that can neither grow organically nor adapt quickly enough to changing environments. Also, collaboration is hindered because structures often split staff into disconnected units, so-called silos. Silos pursue their own interests, which in turn affects individual units as well as the overall organization.
These downsides are intended to be addressed by more dynamic formations such as networks, by putting relationships first. A network with a high level of interconnectivity between teams in different contexts promotes the knowledge sharing and counteracts silos. Thinking this idea one step further, more fluid analogies like boids emerge, such as swarms of birds or fish schools. These embody the synergy of being responsible for one’s own behaviour patterns and being at the same time aware of the others’. If you are more interested in the topic and its application, I highly recommend Erik Ringertz’ book.
Empowering over Controlling
We all know traditional, command-and-control driven structures that remind us of government offices and bureaucracy. In fact, some ministries are more innovative than these environments packed with rules and control in which transformation can hardly flourish. This directive leadership style, which pushes decisions from top to bottom, suppresses the collective wisdom and increases disengagement. So, how can these ivory towers be torn down and what are alternatives?
The keywords are supportive leadership as well as ‘sense and response’. This means not assuming to know all the best, but asking employees what they need to thrive. Because a good role model decides with the employees instead of over them. The used language can change here a lot with words like ‘we’ and ‘us’ to create a sense of unity. But it also means to build an environment of trust and freedom so that employees can fully blossom. This implies that employees can be authentic, but can also enhance their perception. The ‘sense and response’ model aims to observe attentively, get involved, gain insights and respond accordingly. So the one who is closest to the subject is responsible, not the one with the most important title.
‘Survival of the fittest’ refers to those who are best able to adapt to the changing immediate environment.
From Planning to Experimentation
Projects, products and initiatives which strongly remind of the waterfall approach are still widespread. We tend to plan based on assumptions. Even if we would like to, we cannot predict the future or the customer’s wishes. We need data, experiments as well as an environment of psychological safety in which failure is not an issue at all. At least as long as people learn their lesson.
Eric Ries’ famous book ‘The Learn Startup’ describes the topic very well. It can be summarised in: experiment, learn and adapt. In more detail, it suggests starting with a simple prototype that requires just enough effort to learn what the customer wants. Test the prototype with some customers and use their feedback for adjustments or enhancements. In this data-driven way, one learns quickly and cheaply whether one is on the right track instead of making speculations. To promote this, it makes sense to encourage experiments, celebrate successes and talk openly about failures.
You’re wondering how to do this? Well, that is a mystery in itself. That’s why Astro Teller, Head of Moonshots at X, sees himself as a culture engineer. In other words, as someone who tries to align the path of the emotional least resistance on the staff side with the company’s lip service — such as promoting failure and experimentation. Amazon embodied various attitudes here. For instance, it is not considered experimental or innovative if one knows from the beginning that it will work. It is also clear that decisions can usually be changed and are consequently not final. But, everyone should be aware of which mistakes are fine, because there are differences.
Growth over Fixed Mindset
Another point that concludes the learning aspect is internal reflection. It is critical to the growth of all of us even if it is not always easy. Only challenging one’s own mindsets opens up opportunities for growth. Leadership needs to leave the comfort zone, experiment with new things and act as a catalyst for others.
However, this requires believing that one can constantly grow and that mastery is a path without a fixed destination. This contrasts with the fixed mindset of not believing in it and therefore looking for validation and avoiding mistakes. To make the growth mindset more present at an organisational level, it might help to use ‘what if’ questions and ‘not yet’ instead of excluding solutions/approaches definitively.
Open over Closed Mindset
There is the German word ‘beratungsresistent’ which is often used to describe people who are not open to others’ ideas and suggestions. After all, they know better or it’s simply a matter of principle. We absolutely have to get rid of it. In the context of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and learning in general, it’s important to be open-minded. Equally important is to take others seriously and admit being wrong. Nobody wants to undermine one’s authority but simply contribute to solving the problem.
It is not a failure to readjust my sails to fit the waters I find myself in. Mackenzi Lee
Promotion over Prevention Mindset
In psychology and especially in the context of innovation and risk-taking, the topic of loss aversion often arises. This means avoiding loss/failures at all costs and thus also problems, risks and important changes. It is a common phenomenon that can strongly impact decisions. So, it is even more important, as already shown above, to suppress this and to emphasise the potential gains, benefits, and learnings instead. ‘Survival of the fittest’ clearly states that one has to adapt to survive. Risks are inevitable.
Outward over Inward Mindset
Yet another needed mindset slightly connected to the others is to regard colleagues and employees as what they are. Humans. Just like oneself. There is no reason to feel like something better and to prioritise one’s own personal goals. Such ivory towers are highly dangerous in terms of culture and mood within the company. It is essential to treat employees at eye level and in the same way as one would like to be treated. It also helps employees get involved the way they are, instead of disguising themselves and behaving like machines. Brandwatch’s CEO Giles Palmer, but basically the whole leadership team, is still an excellent example for me in this respect.
To bring things full circle, I’d like to briefly highlight the parallels to the story initially told, even though it may be obvious to you. Our old mindsets, which need to be changed, are visualised by the nutrient-poor soil, while the transformation processes are the growth of grass. Without a nutritious soil, a beautiful lawn is hardly possible. The same applies to transformation processes without proper mindsets.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to do everything at once. Step by step. At the same time, be aware that if you adapt continuously, only small steps are necessary. These are usually much easier and more natural than trying to perform a 180° turn every decade. Moreover, you are not alone. Set a good example and ask for help.
Do you think that works well at your company? Then, I would be more than happy about a message and maybe even an invitation to visit. Would love to have a cup of tea!