Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Organisations through Design Thinking

Oct 29, 2019 9 Min Read
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The mind plays a vital part in the existence of humanity. Spiritualists, psychologists and institutional theorists have been studying the mind for a very long time. A single method of defining what the mind is (or is not) and how to tame or control the mind, in my view, does not exist.

The mind can be defined as a bundle of thoughts – and is often linked to energy patterns. Personal development books tend to relate one’s mindset as being either positive or negative – with the former state leading to successful personal and organisational outcomes.

In 2015, after several years of sound research working with various groups including kindergarten children, Carol Dweck wrote a seminal paper about the growth mindset. She suggests that people with a growth mindset (relative to a fixed mindset) can perform better and achieve higher outcomes in a given activity. Specifically, she states that:

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” –Dweck, 2015

So what is a growth mindset? How do people with a growth mindset set themselves apart? One can examine the growth mindset from several different dimensions, as shown in Figure 1. This article examines six dimensions of having a growth vs a fixed mindset and its potential impact on organisations.

Dimension 1: Talent development

Employees with a growth mindset believe that their potential can be harnessed via learning from others, having a good strategy and being diligent. Hard work coupled with good strategies and guidance from others are seen as opportunities to harness their talent.

In contrast, individuals with a fixed mindset believe that talent is predetermined and cannot be developed easily. They also see others as a threat and view the corporate machine as being in a ‘rat-race’.

Dweck in this context argues that an organisation that fosters a growth mindset amongst its employees – and plants this mindset as the bedrock of its corporate culture – can become more innovative and achieve greater results.

Dimension 2: How we see failure

Individuals with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to succeed. They are inbuilt with a ‘never give-up’ attitude and use failure as a powerful learning mechanism to further refine and improve themselves, e.g. refining ideas or prototypes that they are working on based on feedback and critism received.

People with a fixed mindset, relate failures to a self-fulfilling prophecy that they have limited abilities and talent. These people see failure as a limitation. Naturally they tend to give up easily on projects or ideas.

In organisations, having a growth mindset relates to cultivating employees who thrive on failures – taking every failure as powerful antidotes towards success. Companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Alibaba are examples of companies that encourage employees to use failure as stepping-stones to accomplish something great.

Read: Is Failure A Crippling Blow Or Stepping Stone? You Decide.

Dimension 3: Approach to learning

Individuals with a growth mindset focus on what and how they can learn. These people also use every possible opportunity to learn from others, either formally, informally or vicariously. Individuals with a fixed mindset focus on why they cannot learn and look for the slightest excuse to circumvent learning possibilities.

Again, companies that set themselves apart seem to have mastered the art of a collaborative and open learning culture. Information and knowledge is shared across divisions and functional units seamlessly.

Dimension 4: Feedback

Individuals with a fixed mindset do not take feedback constructively – rather, they often take feedback as a personal attack or perceive the feedback mechanism as a threat. They seldom use feedback as opportunities to grow.

People with a growth mindset in contrast, welcome feedback as opportunities to grow – they tend to use feedback to further refine and improve on projects or ideas that they are working on. These individuals view feedback as a constructive process. They also see the person giving feedback as an ally, as partners who offer co-creative possibilities.

Successful start-ups thrive on feedback loops and use the process as opportunities to refine their product and service offering. Companies driven by a growth mindset work from an ‘outside-in’ perspective – i.e. they value feedback from potential consumers prior to full-scale commercialisation.

Companies that breed employees with a fixed mindset, work in an ‘inside-out’ perspective – they go to market without understanding market requirements and customer pain points. In the end, products and services that are launched could end up as failures.

You may be interested in: Do You Ask For Feedback Or Avoid Them?

Dimension 5: When others succeed

We can have two possible worldviews when we learn that others are successful. A person with a fixed mindset often visualises and sees other successful people as a threat, and reinforce their self-limiting abilities. In extreme cases, the success of others is viewed with an envious lens. Fixed mindset individuals also often use statements such as, “she was lucky”, “the boss likes him”, “she is smart to begin with”, “he comes from a good background” and “I would be the same if I were in her shoes”, etc. to justify the success of others.

People with a growth mindset, on the contrary, celebrate the success of others. They use the success of others as inspiration to grow further. They have a deep sense of appreciating why others are successful and seek opportunities to learn and emulate success. Companies that celebrate success often have formal and informal methods of using success to inspire others. Knowledge sharing sessions, coaching and mentoring are examples used by high-powered organisations such as NASA.

Dimension 6: Coping with challenges

Employees with a fixed mindset do not like to be challenged. They see challenges as growth limiting obstacles and often relate challenges given as an attempt to lead them to failure. With a growth mindset, individuals and teams often use challenges as opportunities to grow. Challenges are welcomed and are used as platforms to try something new.

A corporate culture that encourages employees to have a growth mindset will keep coming up with challenges for individuals and teams to work on. Forward thinking companies and leaders get employees to work on challenges that solve vital issues for humanity, e.g. addressing core issues related to the environment, food sustainability, and new technology to help us live and function better as a global community.

Design thinking and growth mindset

I have been involved with design thinking (DT) for more than three years now. Based on my experience as a trainer, author and coach in design thinking, I am convinced that when implemented and used well, DT can promote a growth mindset culture in organisations.

Design thinking

This section offers a quick recap on what design thinking is, based on my 2018 article here: Digital Disruption: Why Design Thinking Helps

The inherent ideas and ideals beneath DT are not necessarily new. However, DT presents a systematic way of injecting creativity and innovative thinking in any company. DT offers highly specific tools and techniques in a simplified manner. These tools are then used to derive the magical inspirational values of DT.

DT is defined as a user-centric collaborative approach in problem solving. The design school (dSchool) at Stanford University prescribes a five-step DT process. This five-step process and what each process means are summarised as follows:

DT PhaseBrief explanation
EmpathyThe first step and arguably the most vital one in DT. Empathy focuses on having a deep understanding of customer pain points and emotional attachment to a given problem or challenge (called ‘design challenge’) in DT. Findings from the empathy feed naturally lead to the second step, namely, ‘define’.
DefineFocuses on getting deep into the problem from the viewpoint of the customer. During this stage, design thinkers spend time coming up with specific perspectives and try to offer game-changing propositions to the problem based on insights or hunches.
IdeateA stage where design thinkers try and generate as many ideas to address the problem defined. Ideate is akin to a brainstorming session where ideas are seamlessly generated.
PrototypingFocuses on translating the idea(s) into tangible manifestations. A prototype is not confined to having a tangible product but also refers to simulations, mockups, or even campaigns, depending on the challenge.
TestingThe final step stresses on the importance of pitching the idea to indemnified target groups; feedback is gathered by teams. The solution is then either launched or reworked accordingly until deemed fit for market launch.

Table 1: DT Five Step Process. Source: dSchool, Stanford

Related article: Design Thinking As A Problem-Solving Tool

Design thinking and six dimensions of fostering a growth mindset

Table 2 provides a summary of how DT can foster a growth mindset in organisations. This five-step DT process is mapped to how they can foster a growth mindset – i.e. how they relate to the six dimensions of growth mindset addressed earlier.

DT StepKey Activities/Focus AreaHow this fosters a growth mindsetGrowth mindset dimension addressed
Empathy• Interview existing or potential clients to learn about a specific issue related to them

• Focus group sessions for the same purpose as above

• Empathy sessions are conducted either in-house or externally depending on the design challenge
• Sharpen listening skills

• Deepens sense of appreciation for what others have to say

• Ability to discover both emotional and physical pain points of others
• How we approach learning

• Improves ability to receive feedback constructively
Define• Develop personas

• Understand core problems faced by stakeholders

• Develop customer viewpoint

• Develop Point of View (PoVs) – which focusses on what we learn from others, our inference and ability to develop insights given the DT challenge
• Approach challenges systematically

• Learn more about people

• Convert challenges as opportunities to develop unique solutions
• How we approach learning

• Improves ability to receive feedback constructively

• Talent development - new skills in converting challenges into possible solutions (insights)
Ideate• Insights from PoVs are converted to as many ideas as possible using brainstorming techniques

• Ideas are presented to others in teams

• Ideas are then refined and selected using specific techniques
• Moving from problem to solutions mode

• Thinking out of the box (improves creativity)

• Receive constructive feedback from others on how to improve or select winning ideas

• Teams teaching teams
• How we approach learning

• Improves ability to receive feedback constructively

• Talent development - new skills in converting challenges into possible solutions (insights)

• Coping with challenge

• Celebrating success with winning ideas from other teams
Prototyping• Winning ideas move on to prototyping

• Ideas are converted into practical manifestations

• In our approach, we use the Scene, Role, Prop to give life to a prototype
• Problem solving to develop practical solutions

• Working with limited resources before full scale investments are made
• How we approach learning

• Improves ability to receive feedback constructively

• Talent development - new skills in converting challenges into possible solutions (insights)

• Coping with challenge

• Celebrating success with winning ideas from other teams
Testing• Teams present their prototype using pitching style

• Teams receive feedback - what went well/how to improve/take questions/additional ideas from others
• Allowing prototypes/projects to fail in-house

• Reflecting on comments from others to improve

• Teams teaching teams
• Receiving feedback to improve prototype

• Improves feedback coping mechanisms

• Reduce negative attitude towards failure

Table 2: Marrying DT with cultivating a growth mindset

In summary, DT has significant potential to improve an organisation’s and an individual’s performance, as the outcomes of using DT can be linked to its ability in fostering a growth mindset. DT starts people with a challenge to work on. DT focuses on collaborative work – squashing the traditional silo mentality of working in departmentalised isolation.

DT projects often provide a conducive field for cross-fertilisation of ideas and solutions from various experts in a company. When executed well, DT can produce breakthrough ideas. DT focuses on the customers – it takes an ‘outside-in’ perspective of the company, placing customers at the core of every idea or solution generated. Although the notion of being customer-centric is not necessarily new, the DT process offers a novel way of examining customer centricity.

DT allows us to celebrate failure – the prototyping and testing stages of DT are highly iterative, moving back and forth between both steps, where ideas are continuously refined based on feedback from the end-users/customers. Stated differently, DT could save companies a large amount of money by failing fast in-house rather than failing in the market after a mega launch.

DT stresses on the importance of listening – with empathy at the core of every DT project, one outcome of successful DT projects is their ability to promote a culture that provides everyone a chance to express themselves freely. Thus, a culture of listening to one another better is generated (both with internal and external stakeholders).

Listen to: Raise Your Game: Incorporating Design Thinking In Business Challenges

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Prof Dr Murali is the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation. As a coach and trainer for over 15 years, he specialises in three broad areas: design thinking and digital economy, leadership development using directive communication based on coloured brain and emotional drivers, and soft skills development. Prof Dr Murali has published over 100 papers in international journals and conferences, including a book. He has also won numerous awards for academic leadership.


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