The Enemy is the Mindset

Mindsets, paradigms, mental framework, blind spots, sacred cows, dominant logic, mental models. There was actually a research finding out more than fifty terms to describe this same concept. The expression managerial mindset is often used in the business world to describe the set of assumptions and hidden norms that govern the behavior of managers. Bear in mind, however, that mindsets or paradigms have a much broader meaning. Every society, organization or geographic region carry its own set of assumptions and patterns; ruling how people communicate, interpret information, react to given situations, and so on.

Consider the following story. A man and his son are driving through a highway when suddenly the car gets out of control and hits a light pole. A couple of minutes later the ambulance arrives and finds that the father died upon the impact while the child is hurt but alive, so they hurry to the local hospital. The surgeon expected to carry out the operation enters the room and screams “I can’t do it, it is my son!”. Now take 10 seconds to figure out what happened before reading further. Most people will hear the story and say “What the heck, did not the father die in the accident?”. Some, on the other hand, will come up with an adultery hypothesis. The solution is far simpler; the surgeon is the mother of the kid. People get puzzled because under the occidental society mindset when we talk about surgeons we assume them to be men.

Paradigms and mindsets might become the enemy because they stick into people’s head even when the surrounding environment has changed. Until the 1970s the “masculine paradigm” we described could be justified with the fact that few women were integrated into the workforce and even fewer were working as surgeons, entrepreneurs, drivers and so on. Nowadays, however, women already represent half of the workforce in advanced countries. In the United Kingdom more women than men train as doctors and lawyers every year. In the Nordic countries 75% of the women aged between 15 and 64 are employed in stable jobs.

Now, if huge demographic changes like the above one, which take decades to materialize, already trick most people imagine what happen when we consider the subtle and fast paced changes that occur in the business world.

Professor Constantinos Markiders from the London Business School has another interesting example to illustrate how mindsets can significantly affect people’s behavior:

“I have in mind an English word that has four letters. It is missing the first letter but I know it ends with the letters _any. Can you think of a word that fits this description? Please take 20 seconds to come up with one before reading further.”

Most people have no problems to find it, after a few seconds going through the alphabet they come up with the word many. Consider now this next problem.

“I have again an English word that has four letters. It is missing again the first letter, but I know it ends with the letters _eny. Can you think now of a word that fits this description? Please take another 20 seconds to come up with one before reading further.”

In this second problem most people fail to find a word even when they go through the alphabet placing letter by letter in front of the word, and they get somehow surprised when you tell them the word is deny. The reason is that they usually try to find a word with the same vowel sound as in many. As Markides concludes “if one word is enough to bias our thinking in such a way, imagine what twenty or thirty years in a given business can do” (For further information check out his book All the Right Moves, HBS Press).

In conclusion, the more a firm is successful solving problems in a certain way or collecting information through certain channels the more the managerial mindset will get reinforced, and the more difficult it becomes to adapt to market changes and technological discontinuities. In order to escape mindset rigidities organizations should try to explicit and challenge them. Managers need to understand that just because their company has been successful doing things in a certain way over the past it does not mean the future will follow alike. Rather the contrary. In our modern economy the ubiquity of change implies that if you keep doing things as you have ever done you can be sure of one thing: failure.

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