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Business Unusual: The Growth Mindset of Organizations

You are no doubt familiar with the concept of Growth Mindset. It was one of the most influential ideas of the last decade. So you won’t be surprised to know that it has a corporate equivalent. The organizational equivalent of Growth or Fixed mindset, is a Business Unusual or Business as Usual mindset.

Growth Mindset

Growth mindset is based on the belief that ‘your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts’. Having such a mindset can be highly advantageous when learning, adapting and perseverance are required for success. An appealing blend of scientific research and common sense, Growth Mindset captured the popular imagination and made its author, Carol Dweck, famous.

Another big idea, called Grit, took hold at the same time. Defined as ‘the ability to bounce back from setbacks / disappointments’ it was the growth mindset in action. The result was a fundamental redefinition of the requirements of success, putting grit ahead of IQ for example. Again it sold a million copies and made its author Angela Duckworth famous.

Organizational Mindset

There is a psychology to the growth of organizations, as well as individuals.  That is to say what goes on in the heads of managers and their teams matters.  

Two companies may face the same market opportunity, have equally attractive market propositions and the same winning strategy, but while one succeeds the other fails.  Why?  Well, there can be many reasons.  Key, however, is the mindset of the management and team.

The organizational mindset determines, for example; whether a company recognizes a new opening in the market, spots the threat posed by a new competitor or believes that it can or should drive for improvement, innovation or growth.  The attitudes and expectations of the team are the filter through which all opportunities and challenges must pass. In this way organizations too can have a growth or a fixed mindset.

The Business Unusual Mindset

There is a fundamental dichotomy at the core of business leadership, strategy and innovation. It is ‘Business As Usual’ and ‘Business Unusual’, although it has many other names too. It is the organizational equivalent of Growth versus Fixed mindset:

  • A growth mindset embraces learning and continuous improvement as a virtue and sees challenges and setbacks as a means of growth. Business Unusual reflects the growth mindset of an organization, business unit or team, with the desire to learn, innovate and grow.
  • A fixed mindset resists change and shuns new ideas. The narrative is ‘same as last year’, ‘we’ve always done it this way’ or ‘we have nothing left to learn’. Change often goes unnoticed, and when it is seen is regarded as a threat, rather than an opportunity.

Saying something is a mindset, considerably increases the level of complexity and challenge involved. That is because changing attitudes and behaviors isn’t easy. Indeed, it is a key reason why so many good intentions and ambitious strategies fail.

Thinking Business Unusual

The Business Unusual Mindset is about embracing the future (however disruptive it may be) and seeking to shape or at least profit from it. However, the future is difficult to predict, much less to manage. Thus, the Business Unusual Mindset requires a new way of thinking – one that engages with complexity, as well as uncertainty.

Business Unusual requires greater curiosity, more diverse thinking and, because there is no single right answer, a degree of intellectual humility is needed. Greater agility, experimentation and fast learning are essential too.

The ‘Business Unusual’ mindset, is also a way of thinking, where:

  • There is no single right answer
  • No one person has all the answers
  • Multiple perspectives are essential
  • The future is unknowable – think in terms of scenarios, assumptions & testable hypotheses
  • The thinking that created the problem probably won’t solve it
  • The solution is adaptive (requiring a change in attitude & behavior) as much as technical
  • Learning is a virtue
  • People must be able to speak their mind – there should be no blaming & no hiding
  • Embrace complexity and uncertainty – look for hidden complexity and misplaced certainty
  • Experimentation is key, iterate and learn fast
  • Mistakes and setbacks are inevitable, they can propel us forward.

The Business Unusual Lens

The extent of Business Unusual has profound Implications for success of projects and initiatives –  for how they are planned, managed, reported on and reviewed.  Also, for the allocation of people and resources.  But more fundamental is the mindset that is required.

The organization seen through a business unusual lens is very different – it is a matrix rather than just a hierarchy, it is bottom-up rather than just top-down. It is agile and adaptive rather than rigid and inflexible. Opportunities and challenges seen through the business unusual lens are also very different.

The warning for managers is don’t apply business as usual thinking to business unusual situations. Increasingly, that means not applying business as usual thinking at all. This is something that the pandemic forced on everybody – it saw business unusual become less unusual and more normal.

In a fast changing competitive market space, the same as last year is probably not good enough. The question is how can you bring business unusual thinking to everything you do?

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