Who’s the “idea person” in your workplace? Most offices have at least one outside-the-box thinker — “what box?” they might even ask — known for unique, often clever, sometimes off-the-wall suggestions. Chances are, this person doesn’t get upset when others resist their pitch, or even when their idea fails, because they know more ideas are on the way.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the naysayer loves to say “no.” This person seems more interested in blocking change than in solving problems, preferring to talk about why new ideas won’t work rather than how to help them succeed. Needless to say, this kind of person rarely suggests any ideas of his or her own.
Most of us tend to fall somewhere in between these two types. But as the Age of Technology foments change at an unprecedented pace, employers and government agencies are realizing the need for innovation at every level, from the ground floor to the C-suite. Keeping up isn’t good enough, not anymore: Today, we must forge ahead or risk being left behind — and that goes not just for businesses, but also for individuals.
Fortunately, innovators aren’t necessarily born, but made. Thinking, in this case, really can make it so. While many have offered techniques for stimulating creative thinking, however, I’m speaking of a much more elemental shift that, I think, must first occur. To make the switch from “no” to “go,” we must first change our mindset.
Mindset, Harvard psychologist Carol S. Dweck says, is one reason why people resist new ideas. The way we see the world and ourselves makes all the difference between greatness and mediocrity — between charging ahead to change the world and lagging behind, opting for the comfortable and familiar.
According to Dweck’s book “Mindset,” those of us with “fixed” mindsets believe we’re born with a given amount of intelligence and ability. The hand we’re dealt is the hand we must play for the rest of our lives. Without special talents, why work hard to learn to play a musical instrument, win a marathon, or change a company’s culture?
People with the “fixed” mindset can feel driven to prove that they’re smart enough, or capable enough. Often, they’re really trying to reassure themselves.
Thinking you can only get so much of anything tends to create a “scarcity mentality,” an anxiety that author Steven R. Covey noted in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Since people with fixed mindsets think their intelligence and abilities cannot increase, according to Dweck, they feel this anxiety, and, with it, insecurity. “What if a co-worker or employee is smarter or more talented than I am? If others notice, I’m doomed.” Many organizations and worthwhile projects have been sacrificed on the altar of fixed thinking.
A different mindset prevails among the most innovative thinkers. Those with a “growth mindset,” Dweck writes, think innate intelligence and talent are only the beginning. Under this mindset, we can do almost anything well as long as we’re willing to work hard at it. Remember the children’s story “The Little Engine That Could?” “I think I can” is the growth-mindset mantra. We can learn; we can achieve; we can innovate. If our idea doesn’t work, we try something else. Rather than see ourselves as a failure, we know we’re a work in progress.
Growth-minded people may want to succeed as much as fixed-mindset people do, but they define success differently. To them, according to Dweck, success means learning — even if they make mistakes along the way. Therefore, they’re not only more open to risk taking, but they’re also more receptive to others’ ideas.
“If you don’t like something, change it,” the author Maya Angelou said. “If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
People with a growth mindset don’t think about how intelligent they are, but about how smart they can become. Success, to them, means learning and improving, Dweck writes. And to growth-minded managers, it means guiding employees, not judging them.
Some ways to change mindsets? Dweck suggests four steps:
- Learn to hear your own fixed-mindset “voice”—the inner critic telling you that you’re a failure when challenges or setbacks occur, or causing you to react defensively to feedback.
- Recognize that you have a choice in how you respond to the situation.
- Counter the fixed-mindset voice with growth-minded arguments such as, “I didn’t do so well at that, but I can learn to do better.”
- Follow up with growth-mindset actions such as trying again, or taking on the very challenge that intimidates you.
Cognitive therapy, which focuses on changing thoughts, beliefs and behaviors to overcome difficulties, can also help with the mindset switch, Dweck says.
Ask almost any successful entrepreneur, and you’ll find today’s road to success paved not just with good intentions, but also with great ideas. Is innovation thriving at your agency, or are you stuck in a proverbial rut? Perhaps it’s time to open your mindset.
JR Reagan is the global chief information security officer of Deloitte. He also serves as professional faculty at Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Columbia universities. Follow him @IdeaXplorer. Read more from JR Reagan.