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Mindsets can be good for you

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Creativity at Work
This is a guest article by Alan Barker.

Try this simple exercise. Count the number of pieces of clothing you put on this morning. Include jewellery, watches and other accessories. (All pairs count as one.)

Now: how many ways could you have got dressed this morning?  And how many of those possibilities did you think about? (The answer’s at the end of this article.)

My guess is that you hardly thought about how to dress this morning. Maybe you spent a moment choosing one or two items of clothing, but you didn’t question the process of getting dressed.  So how did you do it?

You used a mindset.


Operational thinking

Most of our work is operational. All that functional stuff, the administrative and maintenance tasks, the day-to-day chores: as we do that work, we create mental patterns to help us do it more efficiently. The unsuccessful patterns fade away; the successful ones become stronger.

They become mindsets. And most of the time, they’re really useful.

In fact, mindsets are essential to operational thinking. Without mindsets, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day.

Mindsets only become a problem when we want to look at something differently.  If the operational solution no longer works – or if we want to find a new solution – then mindsets can become real barriers in our thinking. That’s because they create assumptions: ways of looking at the situation that we accept unconsciously.

And because they’re unconscious, we don’t notice them, let alone question them.


The dangers of mindsets

Mindsets can generate assumptions in all sorts of ways at work. For example:

  • Product development: we focus on improving the product specification rather than satisfying the customer in different ways
  • Introducing new IT systems: we design ‘bolt-on’ solutions to existing systems rather than investigating what users actually need
  • Contractual negotiations: we go into the negotiating room with preconceived ‘issues’ rather than surfacing the assumptions that both sides might hold
  • Responding to customer complaints: we assume that a complaint is ‘something to be dealt with’ rather than an opportunity to improve our products or services
  • Quality management: we assume that ‘quality’ is about removing defects rather than building quality into a product
  • Strategy: we view our organisation as a machine in need of ‘re-engineering’ rather than asking: ‘What business are we in?’

The real problem is that mindsets are invisible. “The difficulty,” as John Maynard Keynes said, “lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”

If you want to find ways of surfacing and challenging the mindsets in your own thinking, take a look at my eBook, Creativity at Work.

Oh, yes: and how many ways can you find to get dressed in the morning?

Simple. Multiply all the numbers up to your chosen number of pieces of clothing.

For example, if you put on eight pieces of clothing, the number of possible ways of getting dressed is:

8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 40,320

Of course, some operations are not allowable. You don’t usually put your underwear on over your trousers. (Unless you’re Superman.) But even a tenth of that number presents a formidable array of options.

The mindset you’ve developed helps you ignore all the possibilities. Without it, you’d still be wondering how to get dressed at bedtime.
About the author: Alan Barker is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited, a training and coaching consultancy that helps people communicate and think more effectively. Alan is a member of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and the European Speechwriter Network. He’s the author of Creativity at Work and How to Write an Essay.

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