Growth Mindset: the Key to a Learn-it-all Culture

Exper­tism rules. Per­fec­tion is appre­ci­at­ed. First time right. Mis­takes must be hid­den, we fail secret­ly. Sascha Lobo once called this a typ­i­cal Ger­man fix­a­tion for gap dimen­sions. This was the rea­son for the suc­cess of Ger­many’s Wirtschaftswun­der. And in this suc­cess of yes­ter­day lies our cur­rent prob­lem. That’s why legions of Ger­man man­agers trav­el to Sil­i­con Val­ley and admire the courage and speed there. The call for a new cul­ture of fail­ure fol­lows. It is often for­got­ten that the point is not about fail­ure itself, but about learn­ing. What we need more than ever is a learn­ing cul­ture in our companies.

In the begin­ner’s mind there are many pos­si­bil­i­ties, but in the expert’s there are few.
Shun­ryu Suzuki

Car­ol Dweck, an Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy, has been research­ing for many years what makes the dif­fer­ence between chil­dren with strong learn­ing abil­i­ty and chil­dren with poor learn­ing abil­i­ty. She address­es the ques­tion of why some chil­dren have fun work­ing on solv­ing chal­lenges and why oth­ers don’t dare to try them, rather choose sim­pler ones or give up quick­ly. In this con­text, she describes an amaz­ing exper­i­ment. A child of pri­ma­ry school age sits in a room with an assis­tant. The child finds it easy to solve dif­fer­ent puz­zles and the assis­tant prais­es her tal­ent: “You have done it well. You must be very smart!”. Now one might sus­pect that this suc­cess and praise encour­ages the child to attempt more dif­fi­cult tasks. In fact, how­ev­er, the oppo­site is true: chil­dren whose tal­ent has been praised avoid the chal­lenge of solv­ing a more dif­fi­cult puz­zle and choose a much sim­pler one. How­ev­er, if the effort and learn­ing are praised (“You did well! You have worked hard and learned to make the puz­zles faster and faster ”), most of the chil­dren are curi­ous and open to more dif­fi­cult chal­lenges. The eager­ness to exper­i­ment and the will­ing­ness to learn are not a ques­tion of dis­po­si­tion or tal­ent, but rather a ques­tion of atti­tude. Growth Mind­set is what Car­ol Dweck calls this.

It is no longer suf­fi­cient to have one per­son learn­ing for the orga­ni­za­tion, a Ford or a Sloan or a Wat­son or a Gates. […] The orga­ni­za­tions that will tru­ly excel in the future will be the orga­ni­za­tions that dis­cov­er how to tap peo­ple’s […] capac­i­ty to learn at all lev­els in an organization.
Peter Sen­ge, The Fifth Discipline

Trans­ferred to the orga­ni­za­tion­al lev­el, this means that it is sim­ply not enough to ask the employ­ees to under­take coura­geous exper­i­ments like in Sil­i­con Val­ley. The path to a learn­ing cul­ture begins with lead­er­ship because lead­er­ship shapes what is appre­ci­at­ed, rec­og­nized, praised and pro­mot­ed in the orga­ni­za­tion. Those who sole­ly pro­mote tal­ent, exper­tise, adher­ence to process­es, avoid mis­takes and hide fail­ure need not com­plain about a lack of courage. The change of cul­ture begins with the empha­sis on learn­ing — in both suc­cess and fail­ure. It is pre­cise­ly this cul­tur­al change, how­ev­er, that will make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the trans­for­ma­tion of orga­ni­za­tions towards greater agili­ty and adapt­abil­i­ty. Satya Nadel­la, who start­ed an impres­sive change at Microsoft, won­der­ful­ly rec­og­nized and sum­ma­rized this.

Cul­ture is some­thing that needs to adapt and change, and you’ve got to be able to have a learn­ing cul­ture. The intu­ition I got was from observ­ing what hap­pens in schools. I read a book called Mind­set. In there’s this very sim­ple con­cept that Car­ol Dweck talks about, which is if you take two peo­ple, one of them is a learn-it-all and the oth­er one is a know-it-all, the learn-it-all will always trump the know-it-all in the long run, even if they start with less innate capability.

That is true for boys and girls in schools. It’s true for CEOs in their jobs. It’s true for every employ­ee at Microsoft. I need to be able to walk out of here this evening and say, “Where was I too closed-mind­ed, or where did I not show the right kind of atti­tude of growth in my own mind?” If I can get it right, then we’re well on our way to hav­ing the cul­ture we aspire to.
Satya Nadel­la

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