Organizational mindsets are developmental

I’ve been playing some more with the idea of organizational mindsets in the context of a discussion of a team that finds itself “playing not to lose.” The thing that stuck out to me was that instead of seeing these mindsets as hierarchies–“how do I get out of this mindset to the next one?”–I find more opportunity space when seeing them as developmental. Through this lens, a mindset is a stage that includes and transcends the previous one. To get to the next mindset, the team has to master the previous one. To “play to win,” my team needs to first learn how to “play not to lose” really well. We can’t get to “play to change” if we suck at “playing to win.” 

Each stage is a place to acquire capabilities that will take us to the next one. Overlaying my earlier thoughts on theory of change, the team has to spend a bit of time “playing not to lose” to learn how to sustain itself, to grow a “motor.” Then, this team must learn how to steer–grow a rudder!–while “playing to win.” Only then, the team will have enough capacity to “play to change.” At each stage, different sets of tools will be more prevalent. While learning how to sustain, honing tactics and execution will feel like the most important thing. Several of my dear colleagues got burned out trying to advocate for strategic thinking in organizations at that stage. It was heartbreaking, yet I understand now why this happened: the focus on robust strategy doesn’t come into view until the organization is ready to start “playing to win.” And only after the team has mastered strategy can it start considering concepts like “theory of change.” Until then, it will feel a bit “woo,” something that’s far too detached from the ground.

This stage progression isn’t guaranteed. Like in any hero’s journey, there are plenty of forces that may (and will) hold an organization at its familiar stage. It’s far more likely than not for a team to never advance to the next stage. For me, uncovering these forces and helping teams move forth on their developmental journeys is the most rewarding and interesting part of my job.

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