A mélange of potential, not a mindset

May 16, 2022

Gaspar uhas j DmMNZK jo unsplashJust under four years ago I wrote a blog post where I compared blaming failure on culture, incorrect mindsets and mental models with Miasma theory during the plague: nice idea, bad science, some good impact but mostly avoiding the real issue.  It was one of a series of posts on attempting to shift from Agile (as a thing) to Agility (something with more fluidity and movement.  For a similar reason, I prefer sense-making to sensemaking.  The Oxford English dictionary defines mindset as:  An established set of attitudes, esp. regarded as typical of a particular group’s social or cultural values; the outlook, philosophy, or values of a person; (now also more generally) frame of mind, attitude, disposition.  The idea of mental models was popularised by Senge but my impression is that he was working with Forrester’s definition namely: “The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system”.  The latter gave rise in turn to ideas of single and double-loop learning to disrupt and change said models. Then in 2007, we got Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: the new psychology of success.  The title and subtitle on the book cover tell us a fair amount about why this was (and is) a best seller and a whole industry has grown on the back of it.  In particular the multiple creations of Manichæian tables comparing fixed mindsets with growth mindsets and so on.  To be fair Dweck has been pretty open about the potential misuse of her ideas (and there has been a lot) and has recognised the wider academic criticism, that despite multiple attempts here experiments have not been replicated.

Now I think mental models, mindsets and double-loop learning all had their place in the wider development of organisational theory and practice, they represent a useful step on a journey that is still ongoing.  But I also think it is time to move on.  We also need to recognise that the implicit cannot always be made explicit without significant harm – a theme I will return to.  But I think this basic discomfort with ambiguity explains some of the attractions of the various ways in which Dweck and other work was taken out of a culturally specific context in education and made into an industrial recipe.  I am going to say similar things tomorrow when I look at vertical development theories and the whole maturity model industry, but I just flag that intent for the moment.  I also think a lot of the work was well-intentioned and in the context of the time of its creation progressive.  The idea that you should motivate children, athletes and so on to develop self-esteem and an ability to overcome obstacles is not something anyone would reasonably object to.  Dweck’s work in particular falls on the nurture side of an age-old debate with nature and the ideological attraction of that is interesting.  For progressives, it means we are all created equal, but that message is easily twisted (and has been) into a passing of blame or responsibility to the individual.  It’s all too easy to move from encouragement to blame and when your pet change initiative (Agile or otherwise) has just fallen foul of organisational culture (as most do) it is terribly tempting to blame people for having the wrong mindset or mental models rather than admit your programme may just have got it wrong.  It’s a temptation that seems to be directly proportionate in use to the enthusiasm of the proponent(s) of change.

So why is all of this a problem?  Well there are several reasons, so in no particular order:

  1. Like a whole load of methods and theories that came out of the period from the decade or so on either side of the turn of the Century it confuses emergent properties of multiple interactions over time with causal links.  Attitudes emerge over time, in a main as a result of what happens to us and other people around us of whom we are aware.  Common narratives and beliefs emerge and on reinforcement become held to be true.  Process and other changes in organisations change the affordances within which people work and the level of agency in individuals and groups changes and is often removed.  Its 101 complexity theory says that you can’t directly engineer an emergent property, but you can manage constraints, catalysts and energy allocation and see if things go in the right direction.
  2. The idea and the metaphor underpinning it are largely cognitive in nature and very engineering/information processing centric.  Given that most scientists and philosophers would argue for a more distributed model of consciousness that is an issue.  If consciousness is embodied, then the trained and chemically induced responses of the body play a part in things.  If consciousness is enacted and/or embedded then the interactions with our environment are critical as is what we do.  If consciousness is extended into our environment, through social processes and shared narrative then that too is a constraint.  Cartesian and computation models are something natural science has or is in the process of moving away from and that will mean all of the mindset and mental model stuff will need radical reexamination.  I’d also lump new-cognitivism and humanistic approaches along with associated romanticism and idealism into that criticism.
  3. We know far more about inheritance, and not just genetics but also epigenetic theory which does seem to indicate that Lamarckism had, and has, something going for it, as Darwin himself asserted.  He said that culture must inherit we just don’t know the mechanism; we now know this is biological not just behavioural.  The various work of the New Materialists, drawing on feminism as well as other sources such as Deleuze is a growing body of work which gives us a more radical understanding of people and people in society and the nature of the way they operate and the constraints that apply to their various and many actions.

So its time to move on, with respect, to something more nuanced, rigorous and resilient and dare I say practical. We are doing a lot in this area and the whole constraint mapping to counterfactual and constructors (the practical working through of this recent paper) is underway with three pilots already undertaken.  I’ll write more on this but the focus is on fractal mapping of the legitimate zone of operation so that we start with what is possible rather than some idealised vision of the ideal state.    As an organisation, we have always focused on mapping attitudes and culture through micro-narratives and observations and that permits a new approach to change, namely, What can we do tomorrow to create more like these, and fewer like those.  Something I have posted on before but will update.  So expect future posts on both those approaches.  But for now, I want to finish with another approach I have been working with, and with some success, which is to take the whole issue of attitudinal management and look at it through the perspective of what is starting to be called the 3As.  The three perspectives are:

  1. Agency
    Who or what can make decisions or has the freedom to act and to what degree?
  2. Affordance
    What opportunities are provided or inhibited by the ecosystem of which an individual or a group (it is mainly the latter) is a part?
  3. Assemblage
    What are the patterns of belief and understanding that act as constraints on behaviour, that act as attractor wells from which it may be difficult to escape?

So rather than ask questions about what mindset do we need, which is a level of abstraction too far and focuses on the individual we instead look at the situation through three lenses and start to identify where we can make changes, and of that set of actions where we can monitor the outcome so we can encourage attitude shifts that are heading in the right direction (and a few which might just be interesting and could be wrong, but from which we could recover).  In other words, we take an evolutionary approach.  That is also fractal, by which I mean multiple maps at people’s level of competence to act in order to make a difference.  A board can do something that a middle manager cannot and so on.  Different parts of the organisation may be in different places and have different journeys to take.  Cognitive and experiential diversity is critical to resilience: messy coherence or coherent heterogeneity as I have called it.  We might add that the approach should also be anthropocentric in nature, breaking the various engineering metaphors and paradigms that seem to co-exist with NAFB idealism to the detriment of all.

A  mélange of potentialities rather than a miasma of temporary self-satisfaction …

The brain image is by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash, the banner image is from the ever inspirational Gaping Void Culture Design Group

Thanks to Emma Jones of the Cynefin Centre for review and corrections/additions to the above (but as a whole its still my fault if I got anything wrong)

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