It’s all in the mindsets

13th June 2013, BUSINESS STANDARD Being growth-oriented is better than being fixated on avoiding failure InnoColumn will explore practices of real innovators in a practical rather than in an academic mode.


Being growth-oriented is better than being fixated on avoiding failure

InnoColumn will explore practices of real innovators in a practical rather than in an academic mode. I hope it will come through easy-to-read and thought-provoking. In my first article, let’s examine the concept of “growth mindset”. Why should innovators have a “growth mindset”?

Through her research, professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University suggests that there are two types of mindsets: “fixed mindset” people, who believe that their abilities are fixed and repeatedly use those abilities to carefully avoid failures; and, “growth mindset” people, who believe that their abilities can be expanded and accept that this involves learning from mistakes and failures. And so, young people are thought to have a “growth mindset” (experimental), while the old are thought to be of a “fixed mindset” (mistake-avoiding). No doubt, there are exceptions.

Those with a “growth mindset” are prepared to fail, but they learn from their experiences. Many of film star Shammi Kapoor’s early acting roles were flops. He learnt to become a distinctive actor through his improvisation and his dancing. Although he became very successful as an actor, he tried his hand at producing films (Manoranjan and Bundlebaaz). Both failed at the box office, though acclaimed by critics as being ahead of their times. Next, he dabbled with a music radio station that was again unsuccessful. Finally,
in the early 1990s, he embraced the internet, something that was least expected of a dancing, light- hearted Bollywood actor.

Kapoor seemed to innovate by experimenting, learning to do new things and enjoying himself. He did not seem to be trying to prove anything. He remained an innovative trendsetter throughout his career and displayed a “growth mindset”.

An individual like Kapoor could do such things, but how do you inculcate this mindset in a business or an institution? The experience of a chemical company, Rallis India, offers an example. The company was producing 20,000 litres of effluent from a manufacturing process. The company was not permitted to destroy the effluent, except through a common incinerator installed in the chemical zone. This brought
with it penalties of sustainability and cost overloads. Could the company achieve zero-effluent discharge?

Finding that there were three effluent streams that mixed together to form the discharge, the company innovators asked: “Why not deal with each effluent stream as it gets generated rather than all the three together at the end?” Through an innovation programme, alternatives were attempted. Recycled water and useful organic salts were recovered and the effluent load was reduced from 20,000 litres to only 2,000 litres per day.

The project has still not succeeded in achieving its zero-effluent goal. But the company nurtured a “growth mindset” among its executives by encouraging honest and disciplined experimentation and daring its executives to try. Hindustan Lever did the same when it learnt how to use minor, forest seed vegetable oils for soap-making during the 1970s – a world first in those days.

Unfortunately, companies tend to adopt a not-invented-here syndrome. Louis Carter stated in Strategy + Business magazine (October 28, 2011) that very often, best practices can be found in completely different industries. A steel company found a solution for counting rebar products through a software company. A novel method to manufacture a consumer product was found from the discrete manufacturing expertise of a wrist watch company.

Carol Sanford narrates the outcome of a knowledge-sharing trip when she took a DuPont titanium dioxide team to an obscure coal company (The Responsible Business, Jossey Bass, 2011). The DuPont executives manufactured a white powder and wore button-down, formal clothes. The Kingsford Coal executives made a black powder and wore sweat shirts and red suspenders.

The DuPont executives found nothing to learn from their visit and expressed their dissatisfaction to the consultant who had organised the trip. The Kingsford Coal executives got enamoured by DuPont’s safety and asked loads of questions of their visitors. They also took detailed notes.

A year later, the DuPont executives had forgotten the visit. The Kingsford Coal executives implemented the safety lessons and sought a meeting to thank DuPont. The Kingsford Coal people displayed the “growth mindset” while, in this case, the DuPont executives demonstrated the “fixed mindset”.

Leadership in an institution, company or laboratory is a formal position. The mere act of achieving an exalted status can cause a leader to give up the “growth mindset”. Stakeholders and the media love the “evergreen and always successful leader with a blemish-less track record”. Why would such a person take a risk that can result in failure or bring criticism?

The reality is that holding a leadership position is like having the credentials to drive. It does not assure that you will indeed drive skillfully under severely challenging situations. To do that, you have to take risks and experiment.

Leadership means creating for the employees a meaning in the work that they do and fostering engagement in their hearts. “Growth mindset” allows people to love what they are doing. They are not necessarily trying to get to the top slot, but they enjoy what they do so much that some of them end up in the top slot. It encourages people to value whatever they are doing, irrespective of the outcome.