When it comes to driving innovation, the single most important consideration is mindset—the mindset of those attempting to achieve innovation, and the mindset of those they encounter. No matter what the innovation challenge may be, it is issue number one and the single greatest factor in determining success or failure. That’s a claim many may find jarring, but it’s supported by the research. Research that I’ve discussed in earlier posts and will continue to discuss here.

Mindset is one of those terms that gets tossed around a lot—usually undefined in any specific way. To some it means personality or attitude or frame, or as I heard one facilitator put it, “It’s everything up there.” The definition I prefer and use in my research is the one articulated by Stanford Educational Psychologist Carol Dweck. She defines mindset as “implicit theories.” That is to say that it is the collection of assumptions and beliefs we use to represent how the world works. These theories are implicit because they are generally unexamined and frequently subconscious.

A useful analogy is the operating system on a computer or smartphone. It functions in the background in ways that are largely invisible. Yet how it’s designed and how well it functions impacts everything that device does. We each have our own operating system or personal paradigm, and it is also largely invisible to us. But it can profoundly impact our decisions and actions.

Mindset is made up of the mental models we have that explain why things happen as they do. We may tend to believe that “people are just the way they are” or that “people can and do change over time.” We may believe that attributes like intelligence and integrity are hard-wired into people, or that they are a product of how we were raised and our life experiences. These alternative mindsets aren’t necessarily right or wrong, but they do have consequences. If I think people are either trustworthy or not, good or bad, then I probably think that transgressors should be locked up and punished, and that once someone has misled me I should never trust them again. On the other hand, if my mindset is that people grow and develop and sometimes make mistakes, I’m probably more forgiving and more supportive of efforts to rehabilitate people. These mental models lead us to form preferences that often vary based on context. They impact how we conduct out lives. They can even influence how we vote!

Mindset is not personality. When psychologists talk about personality, they usually mean a set of innate traits that are hard-wired into us and therefore do not change. Most of the popular assessments that people are familiar with (MBTI, DISC, Strengthsfinder, etc.) are designed to measure personality. Mindset is different. Mindset is something we can choose to change about ourselves, and doing so can have profound consequences. Creative Problem Solving or what is commonly called brainstorming is actually a technique for temporarily shifting mindset, by asking participants to adopt a set of shared assumptions. Assumptions like: there are no bad ideas and everyone is equally capable of coming up with great new ideas. The truth of those assumptions is debatable but they have been found to be useful in shaping the right mindset for that purpose.

So what does this have to do with innovation? Plenty. Our mindset predisposes us to be receptive or resistant to innovation, often in powerful ways that are invisible to us. If I’m convinced that my success and the success of my organization is the result of staying on target and meeting goals, then I will resist anything that interferes with that. I will do my best to “detect and correct” any deviations from the established processes that I believe will achieve the results I want. This is how most managers and leaders spend most of their time, making sure that things stay on track. The goal is to assure that people are doing their jobs and procedures are followed so that revenues are sustained and the business is profitable. We focus on these things because we know they are important to our survival.

Innovation however, requires deviating from established processes and identifying new targets. So while managers may say they support innovation (and genuinely believe that they do), they may continue to make decisions that in fact strongly resist it—and intensely defend the need to do that. Trying to innovate with a resistant mindset can be like trying to drive a car with the parking brake engaged. You may still make some progress, but it is not very efficient.

The most effective innovators are those who have shifted their mindset (consciously or unconsciously) to value new possibilities, experimentation and discovery. They welcome other perspectives, eagerly test their ideas, embrace a challenge and pursue insight. They recognize the importance of keeping things operating smoothly, but they’re willing to actively explore alternatives. This requires much more than being creative. It’s about being just as disciplined as those who manage business processes. But that rigor is focused on accurately understanding and adapting to a changing business environment, striving to understand things in new ways and assuring that what they are pursuing creates genuine value. The mindset of an innovator isn’t about just trying stuff to see what will happen. It’s about being highly attuned to the realities we encounter, so we can account for them and make appropriate adjustments.

This is not speculation. In recently published research, I have measured mindset and compared it to value creation, and it makes a huge difference in innovation success. A white paper describing this work can be downloaded on the Innovator Mindset website.

We tend to see innovation and entrepreneurship as changing the world around us, but the first step is to upgrade what’s between our ears. We need to become skilled at systematically updating our own thinking. That is just as important as any organization’s innovation processes, and it’s just as crucial that we optimize it. Mindset becomes truly powerful when we gain the self-awareness to understand what our mental models are, how to change them and what changes will be most productive. So we can effectively rewrite our mental code. Shifting our mindset is the first step toward becoming a great innovator.

In my next few posts, I’ll talk about some of the important characteristics of an Innovator Mindset and how they predispose us to create exceptional value.