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Cultivating an Adaptive Mindset

Carol Dweck, author of ‘Mindset’ and Professor at Stanford University writes about two mindsets; a “fixed mindset, where you believe your qualities are carved in stone,” and a “growth mindset, where you believe that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate and build on through your efforts.”

In today’s complex business world it’s a ‘growth mindset’ that is required from our leaders to navigate the complexity of our new business context and successful execute strategy. This fast-paced and ever-changing world in which we are in, is calling for ‘The Adaptive Mindset’.

What’s in a Mindset?

We are not only struggling to lead and execute strategy in our current VUCA world, but there is more ahead.

The daunting future of the quantum revolution where authorities will be algorithms and AI will turn our world upside down. And it’s calling for a mindset of leaders that have a capacity for paradox; the ability to create space for new ideals by building on the foundational approaches of how we get work done.

It’s calling for a curious and resilient mind that is intrigued and excited about experimentation and risk but can bounce back and learn from failure.

And last but not least, it’s calling for an empathetic mind that can reach past one’s own bias and learn from others; how they feel, what they need and what their views are.

This mindset needs to cross the boundaries of fundamental aspects that make our business function; Work, People and Strategy.

We take a look at each of these in turn and find out what they mean.

MindsetCapacity for Paradox

Before we act we must think. Rather than rushing in to fix a problem or determining a solution, the ability to quieten the mind and think about what we are facing, is paramount.

A quiet mind is able to hear intuition over fear and remove barriers around which path is best to follow for positive results. It gives the mind a chance to determine what business context is being presented and therefore what approach to apply to the project at hand.

The ability for our leaders to switch between approaches is key. In particular, businesses are being faced with two contexts; complicated and complex, within project-based work.

Complicated, or technical contexts, are easy to identify and can be solved by applying tried and tested solutions. They have medium-high certainty and predictability, multiple cause and effect relationships, and require expert analysis and diagnosis. It can have multiple right approaches/pathways to a solution.

When we switch to complex operating contexts, we move across a certainty/predictability chasm where cause and effect cannot be foreseen, patterns emerge from interactions, and underlying structures reveal progression paths. They are much harder to define and call for new ideas to bring about change in multiple places that involve many stakeholders. Sebastian Salicru, in his post, “Ten Leadership Capabilities for 2018 and Beyond” explores that point further.

The quiet mind requires patience to allow patterns from the data to emerge and potential paths or courses of action to reveal themselves.

In a complex context, you must immerse yourself in the context and coax it into revealing its underlying structure. It is easy for our minds to play tricks and drive us to our default thinking; but if we can overcome our bias and engage with a broad network to encompass other perspectives, innovation and forward thinking can come to light and present the best opportunities forward.

The complicated context allows for “either this solution OR that solution.” The complex context requires, on the other hand, “both discipline AND freedom.” There is a fundamental shift when you move from complicated to complex but there is a leadership and mindset approach required for both. Capacity for paradox. Adaptability.

Curiosity and Resilience

This stressful environment is putting extreme demands on all of us, in particular our leaders. Fast, intense, complex, unpredictable!

An adaptive mind requires a very high level of ambiguity tolerance and to be resilient to these overwhelming pressures. If not, we are stifling the ability to innovate and see through the murkiness that lurks. Innovation is suppressed under stress.

It is understood, that just as we have different mindsets that are used and useful for different contexts (growth and fixed) we have different parts of the brain that are used for different functions.

The default mode network part of the brain is used for delivering certainty, whereas the cognitive control network of the brain is used for creativity. Stress kicks us into our default mode which may not be appropriate for that situation. If the project or situation is complex, we need to be open to innovation and opportunity.

It takes energy and resilience to have a high ambiguity threshold. To be willing to experiment and move fast and rapidly prototype to develop and execute on strategy BUT be able to bounce back and accept that mistakes are a positive lesson and useful way forward.


In overcoming our own bias and seeing a situation for what it truly is, we need put ourselves into the minds of our customers and stakeholders; to have a more human-centric approach and focus.

We need human-centred insight to get to the heart of a problem and help us to reframe and uncover the needs our customers and stakeholders don’t know they have.

Some insights from a recent IBM report show that organisations who are achieving success in this current climate; known as ‘reinventors’ put a lot of emphasis on the customer. Here are just some of the following top tips:

  • Generate empathetic understanding and insights in abundance and have equally important second-order effects. Propagate trust and accountability
  • Collaborate and co-create new products and services and integrate feedback from their customers into all of their planning and design processes
  • Good at creating close connections with customers to garner direct feedback
  • Very effective at detailing customer experience journey maps and customer
  • Decompose customer journey uncovering root issues and pain points in highly precise detail

Empathy and understanding then create trust and safe places to experiment and be curious!

Another important point on empathy is to be empathetic to not only the important stakeholders associated with a task at hand, but also to yourSELF! If your inner voice is not negative you will interpret adversity in a more realistic light, and your optimism about your ability to deal with a situation will shine through.

Work, People and Strategy

Leaders learn how to thrive and win in this new normal by mastering how to think and lead differently across three fundamental domains of strategy, people and work. By changing your approach in only one aspect of this wheel you are not addressing these challenges holistically and could make matters worse or more confusing.

The ability to adapt to changing conditions and continue to translate and align strategy, design innovative solutions to new challenges, and collaborate more intensely while influencing are equally important. If you consider strategy, work and people when you choose your approach there will be better balance and communication.

Adaptive Strategic Execution Programme

How Do We Develop It?

Among the skills adaptive leaders need in their toolboxes are:

  • Driving and influencing change
  • Leading without authority
  • Building effective teams
  • Managing critical relationships

Learn more about how these specific capabilities provide a holistic approach to strategy execution and how they can empower leaders with the right mindset to successfully drive project-based work.

Why Do We Need It?

Our Adaptive Leaders need to have a new vision.

To make the right decisions at the right moment.

To see calmly and clearly through the unclear and uncertain environment in which are we working.

To move forward with confidence and take our team along with us through this journey.

To ensure successful execution of strategy and produce positive results for all aspects of the organisation; work, strategy and people.


Strategy Execution and Duke Corporate Education have partnered to create and deliver the Adaptive Strategic Execution Program. Strategy Execution’s proven expertise and business techniques combined with Duke Corporate Education’s cutting-edge university research and learning methodologies infuse the program with a unique combination of modern theory, practical frameworks and hands-on practice leaders need. Research shows that great innovation rarely comes from single eureka ideas, but rather from combining existing ideas in novel ways. This partnership has done just that. Together, we’ve combined the capabilities of two successful companies in a new way that provides innovative solutions for our clients.

The program is available for group delivery on site at company locations as well as on-campus enrollment at Duke University or on-line for individuals. The program enables leaders to take their individual and team performances to the next level increasing the odds of project success. Learn more about the Adaptive Strategic Execution Program and get started today.

Adaptive Strategic Execution

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