Shaping a Mindset for Agility

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Shaping a Mindset for Agility

In the last year or so I have been working together with my colleagues and a range of other experts to support a large digital transformation in an organization which includes cultivating a broader sense of organizational agility. This is not only essential in this business, but in every business as far as I can see. We live in an ‘age of accelerations’ as Thomas Friedman dubbed it. The combination of exponential development in technology, ever-growing connectivity in global economies, and increasing pressure for organizational and social transformation from climate change means that every kind of organization is having to become more responsive to the shifting sands of the modern world. Agility is a necessary trait for even basic business survival, and critical if you want to lead the way in a competitive marketplace.

If you want an organization that is more agile, how do you create that?

Adopting ‘Agile’ team working – using methods such as Scrum or Kanban – will be an excellent evolution for some organizations, but it will not suit every business. Regardless of your structures, methods, practices or strategies, the degree to which your organization can be agile and responsive is largely determined by the degree to which your people can.

If you want greater organizational agility, you need to help your people to have an agile mindset. Even if you are formally adopting ‘Agile’ ways of working, most of the experts I have worked with are at pains to point out that ‘Agile’ is not a method: it is a philosophy, a set of principles, more than anything, a mindset. If you merely replace one set of rules with another, it will likely become as rigid and unresponsive as the previous one. Agility as a trait implies the capacity for swift, fluid change in the face of life’s circumstances. Shaping (or re-shaping) mindset then becomes a primary concern.

If you want to shape mindset, how do you do that?

Mindset has been an increasingly hot topic in the world of people development, particularly since Carol Dweck’s work rose to fame a couple of years ago. However, where Dweck focuses on mindset in a specific frame, I have worked with mindset as a broader concept. We have been working with designing mindsets to meet the specific challenges a business faces: Do people need to take more responsibility? Or create a sense of momentum and drive? Or stay curious and open for longer rather than jumping to solutions? What is the mindset that will unlock real business value, if only you could get it to stick?

Out of this work, I have come up with some simple principles for how to help people to shift their mindsets, regardless of what the specifics of that shift might be. They are a starting point because shifting something as fundamental as the deep psychological structures of mindset takes time and commitment, but we have found them to be useful to guide our work and help our clients. It is a mindset ‘A-B-C.’

A = Awareness – To shift mindset, people first have to be aware that they have a mindset! Mindsets, as ways of operating, can be so deeply buried in our psyche’s that they are the ‘water we swim in’ and many people will first need to be helped to notice their own patterns of assumption and belief. The good news is that because of what Gestalt psychology calls ‘the paradoxical nature of change,’ as soon as you become aware of something in yourself, it starts to change. Awareness itself is a powerful evolutionary force.

B = Belief – Next people need to believe two things about their mindset: that it is desirable to change it, and that it is possible to change it. If they cannot see how their current world-view may be limiting their effectiveness, why would they do anything about it? Even if they think shifting perspective may help, if they feel irretrievably stuck, why bother?

C = Choice – Finally, people have to choose to take action to make a change, and not just once, but over and over again. Mindset is essentially a habitual way of orienting ourselves to the world, of thinking, feeling, and acting. As anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking or start going to the gym will tell you, changing habits is hard work and takes repetitive commitment. It is only through the continuous choice to take a different path that deep mindset change takes place.

Working with learners around mindset can be nuanced work to do well, but the potential reward is a far more aware, agile and resilient workforce. In this Age of Accelerations, that may be the best investment you can make in your most important asset: your people.