A mindset is a set of assumptions, methods and ideas held by an individual or exercised by a group. In practice, mindsets are everywhere around us, as evident by people’s adoption and acceptance of certain behaviors or choices that are already established; most often, these mindsets are referred to as rules or conventions. With regard to the innovation equation, mindsets can be very good or very bad established norms — it just depends on what is involved in each set.
Think about a mindset this way: If employees subscribe to a common belief that things are great as-is, the result may not be bad. However, such situations will most likely not produce innovative solutions for the company or its customers. Conversely, if employees exercise free-thinking and embrace change — rather than follow lock-step compliance or allow blind acceptance of the status quo — they are more likely to create situations that produce problem-solving, market-ready products and services. In other words, innovative solutions will result.
Breakthrough research by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck identified the differences between fixed and growth mindsets. Professor Dweck’s widely acclaimed book, “Mindset: The New Psychology for Success,” explains how the attitude we bring to our daily activities can play a large role in shaping and extending the ways we utilize our innate talents and skills-based qualities. If someone believes their talents — and intelligence, abilities, etc. — are fixed, they are faced with a universe of limited upside for their personal and professional growth. Yes, there is room for growth and improvement, but that growth is limited and finite. On the other hand, if someone believes their talents orbit in a universe of unlimited growth, their upside to achieve personal and professional growth is endless. That is, their ability to achieve growth and improvement are unlimited and infinite.
According to professor Dweck’s work, these two very different and basic mindsets shape our everyday lives. In order to navigate what has been called “mindset mayhem,” it is helpful to understand the differences between the two.
In a fixed mindset, an individual or group believes something is fixed and has defined limitations. When it comes to intelligence, for example, a fixed mindset describes you as either smart or not smart; the same goes for talent: You are either talented, or you are not. According to the fixed mindset theory, there is rarely an in-between, so the notion that a smart or talented person needs to boost their skills is never an accepted prescription for future growth and infinite improvement.
The opposite holds true with a growth mindset. Here, an individual or group believes that something is variable and fluid without limitations. Using intelligence and talent again as examples, a growth mindset describes intelligence and talent as always changing; both grow over time due to learned behaviors, practiced improvement and actual experience. A person develops the capacity to improve and strengthen his or her abilities so that fewer limits exist; further advancement, learning and development are therefore achievable on account of the person’s growth mindset.
Mindset for Innovation
So, when it comes to innovation, a fixed mindset can be a creativity killer. If people believe existing skills make them valuable or that they’ve achieved only because of who they are rather than what they will become, they fail to recognize the infinite power of continuous learning. This shortfall can have negative consequences for innovation, which most oftentimes is characterized as a process by which incremental improvements occur slowly and methodically with many mistakes and setbacks. A fixed mindset is problematic because a person is fearful of making mistakes. Human nature teaches us to avoid such situations.
That’s why in a fixed mindset, to fail is to be avoided. It is shameful. And shame falls into the “avoidance” category of basic human emotions; (most) people will go to great lengths to avoid shame-inducing outcomes. It is no surprise that a fixed mindset best characterizes a majority of employees and managers in today’s business world.
In contrast, people who possess a growth mindset accept the importance of lifelong learning and the promise of unlimited advancement. They understand that even their greatest abilities can be pursued and developed further, with infinite improvement as the ultimate aim. For these individuals, lifelong learning can be the difference between good and great as the growth mindset is fearful of losing out on opportunities, not fearful of failure.
That’s because failure is not bad, or final, but can be — gulp — exciting. Excitement falls into the “attachment” category of basic human emotions and (some) people will go to great lengths to achieve exciting outcomes.
I developed a growth mindset after laboring under a fixed mindset until an awakening mid-career that was aided by other changes in my life. As I grew away from a limited mindset and into a limitless mindset, I felt inadequate when I sat on the sidelines while someone else pursued problem-solving ideas, tackled big challenges or stretched to reach for the moon. Growth mindset types are guided by epiphanies, challenges, big hairy audacious goals and a fear of missing out. Making mistakes throughout the process of innovation is a sequence to follow when the growth mindset is in place and in practice.
When it comes to innovation, companies with an “edge” possess growth mindsets. This edge and these companies promote collaboration — especially between management and employees — and success across the organization.
So, how best to cultivate, nurture and operate a growth mindset? Start by re-igniting those childhood spirits that are often squelched by formal education, careers, relationships and life. Channel your inner child when it comes to being a problem-solving, creative innovator. Professor Dweck’s work on mindsets led her to these four insights that have been adapted for the workplace:
- Learn from mistakes and embrace challenges, setbacks and obstacles with creativity and imagination;
- Receive and invite constructive feedback;
- Encourage innovation and invite endless and infinite possibilities;
- Master new skills, acquire new information and commit to a lifetime of learning and doing.
The good news is that anyone can initiate a shift to a growth mindset at any time. Doing so shifts your thought processes to be collaborative, open, authentic, empathic and relevant. If I can do it, so can you, which is why I encourage you to embrace a growth mindset and unleash the creative, problem-solving innovator that resides inside of you.
David Whitney serves as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering. Whitney teaches a course, Engineering Innovation, to both undergraduate and graduate students at UF and is the creator of the Spotlight on Innovation series. In addition, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies.