“This is a time of tremendous change where, like it or not, you’re going to have periods of confusion. Like it or not, you’re going to turn into a novice over and over again.”
• Carol Dweck
Ninety minutes into a workshop about leading change effectively, the questions begin.
“Where are the steps?”
“Do we get copies of all the slides?”
These questions – voiced by some, thought by others – are often asked by groups nervous about the trajectory of a course. Will they leave with all they wanted?
Perhaps this journey is not one the participants had expected, but it is what they need to lead innovative change. Becoming novices over and over again means that as change leaders, we must become comfortable with ambiguity. We must first move away from the Fixed Mindset that wants to ensure we’re safe and secure by following predictable steps.
It is like peering over the edge of a precipice, uncertain about where we will end up. Instead of specific steps, this path consists of steep cliffs and valleys with thick woods. Our job as leaders is to invite and inspire participants over the edge into a new mindset.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck developed the concept of fixed and growth mindsets while studying achievement and success. Her research suggests that those with a fixed mindset believe that levels of intelligence and talent are unchanging. The desire is to be seen as smart and to prove ourselves and never fail. Individuals with this mindset may react to problems with controlling, protecting and complying tendencies.
In contrast, a growth mindset focuses on developing knowledge, awareness, intention and skill that can be applied moment to moment. We believe that we can learn and grow through effort, perseverance, success and failure. We want to stretch, take risks and learn.
Change leaders need the ingredients – processes, practices and tools – but not a recipe!
Recipes or defined steps are useful in managing change, in creating well-defined, routine processes. In this predictable environment, unknowns, ambiguities and mistakes are unexpected. Conformance to specification is crucial and small changes can be adequately managed. Any failures are due to an inability or unwillingness to follow procedure.
However, change in today’s rapidly changing world tends to be complex and innovative rather than routine. Change management alone – with specific recipes and steps – is not adequate in dealing with complex processes that happen over and over again, but never exactly the same way twice.
Innovative change requires ambiguity. Multiple perspectives are apparent and relationships are key to understanding and engaging with complex dynamics. Uncertainty and some level of failure is unavoidable.
Change leaders who shift their mindset from certitude to inquiry are better able to lead themselves, others and their organizations through transition with compassion, courage, and curiosity.
In leading innovative change, as when developing a brand new product, business venture, market, or way of operating, much is unknown and there is high uncertainty. Tolerance for intelligent failures from experimentation must be high.
Change leaders who can exist with ambiguity and the creative tension of paradoxes are better placed to shift the collective mindset to that of a learning organization. This environment fosters high levels of psychological safety and accountability, and an openness to what emerges.
“Most of the ways we were taught to think, to reason, to understand simply don’t give us the means to make wise decisions anymore. We don’t know how to be wise stewards of the dilemmas and challenges that confront us daily. We were not taught how to make sense of a chaotic world, or a world-wide interconnected web of activity and relationships.”
• Margaret Wheatley, management consultant
Becoming an effective change leader means first changing ourselves. We must shed our old self for a new one, and go through the same fundamental shift of heart, head, and gut that we want for our organizations and the world.
Many unknowns, uncertainties, and ambiguities – different people, teams and contexts – exist in leading change. Yet with compassion and collaboration, courage and conviction, curiosity and creativity, we have the privilege of being witness to changing mindsets on both a personal and collective level.
Rather than following a defined path, focusing on personal and collective development allows us to deepen our knowledge, awareness, intention and skill.
Kerry Woodcock, Ph.D., coaches pioneers and influencers to amplify the power of relationship and lead over the edge of change. As Principal of Novalda, she develops change leadership capability in organizations and social systems.
Question | What strategies might encourage a growth mindset in your organization?