If there is one saying that parents find irresistible and that completely fails to console an upset child, it’s the old saw, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” 

Unfortunately, with the innovation craze that is currently sweeping the organizational schoolyard, many social sector leaders seem intent on repeating exactly the same mantra to their teams. They focus on the material “sticks and stones” of innovation, such as building stylish new offices or investing in the latest technology platforms, while underestimating the power of the “names” side of things: staff mindsets. How teams mentally approach their innovation challenges can hurt, if not break, any undertaking. 

This is because innovation depends on a deep-seated tension within the human mind. We instinctively impose thought patterns on external stimuli to generate the new creative connections and combinations that are fundamental to innovation. As Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel’s wrote in his book Age of Insight, “[The brain] searches for patterns amid chaos and ambiguity … This search for order and pattern is at the heart of the artistic and the scientific enterprise alike.” Yet at the same time, these patterns (or mindsets) also serve as efficient shortcuts to make sense of the world around us; they become the proverbial “box” that is so incredibly hard to think outside of. Consequently, as paleontologist Stephan Jay Gould wrote in The Flamingo’s Smile, these patterns can also cause us to “mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning. No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.” To be human is then to be naturally creative, as well as naturally willing to forgo our creativity and remain in a comfortable routine. 

This strain is compounded in the social sector, where we commonly view passion as a necessary, and indeed desirable, condition. With innovation, however, single-minded fervor is not only insufficient, but also can be downright debilitating by further freezing unproductive patterns of thought. Eleni Janis, vice president with New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, once noted, “We have worked with hundreds of social entrepreneurs, and how they assess and shape their mindset and that of their team is a critical indicator of success. In communications, what you say is as important as how you say it; in social innovation, how you perceive change is as important as how you go about it.”  

Social sector leaders can encourage innovation by fostering the following three productive mindsets, in both themselves and their colleagues:  

1. Joyful Collaboration

Generative, inspirational, and humorous, this mindset is about viewing your intelligence and abilities as malleable so that challenges become opportunities to develop them. Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford labels this attitude a “growth mindset,” and it is strongly correlated with creativity.

The cherry on top comes from Cornell’s Professor Alice Isen, who demonstrated that simply being in a good mood boosts creative problem-solving. In a study she conducted with colleagues, participants who entered a “happy feeling state” by consuming candy or watching comedy films were better able to solve problems that required ingenuity than participants who were in a neutral or negative mood. Thus, this first mindset is about being positive and optimistic, and welcoming opportunities to improve one’s abilities. Its watchword is the improv concept of “yes, and” that seeks constant collaboration.   

2. Respectful Debate

This one embraces civil and empathic debate to collectively refine solutions, and continually asks, “How do we know this to be true?” 

When Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley and his colleagues compared groups that were given standard brainstorming instructions (to refrain from criticism) to other groups that were encouraged to debate, their findings were striking: Debate generated substantially more ideas than traditional brainstorming, suggesting that when people confront and explore differences, it enhances creativity. Pete Maulik, from the innovation strategy firm Fahrenheit 212, reinforced the point, “Brainstorming creates great meetings; debate creates great innovations. Debate allows us to interrogate and challenge ideas, which makes the outcomes that emerge both more creative and likely to succeed.” 

Thus, this second crucial mindset for innovation encourages shared inquiry. It resembles a classic Socratic approach, seeking dialogue in a collective journey for truth through rigorous, yet respectful, questioning. Innovation requires rediscovering what the ancients understood, and this mindset is most poetically expressed in the biblical proverb: “As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another.”

 3. Resilient Learning

Developing this mindset means both recognizing that failure is unavoidable and accepting responsibility “with a bow,” as Seattle improvisation artist Matt Smith suggests. At the same time, it means concentrating on what failure teaches us and what we have the power to change.

Being “resilient” has become a popular catchphrase in education, but in practice, we often misinterpret the research and turn the concept into the psychological equivalent of an airline safety briefing card—something we vaguely refer to but totally ignore until an emergency hits, at which time we’re unlikely to follow its counsel. As Dr. Robert Brooks, a leading authority on this topic, told me, “Resilience is, in part, an outlook with associated coping strategies that we should cultivate daily. When we focus on what is under our control to change regardless of the circumstance, we can tap the power of this mindset to become the authors of our own lives.” And so rather than fetishize failure the third mindset is one of relentless reflection.

The Monday Morning Mindsets Behind GivingTuesday

As many know, GivingTuesday is an open-source social movement created by 92nd Street Y, a cultural institution and community center in New York City. The initiative encourages giving to charitable causes on the day after Cyber Monday, at the beginning of the holiday shopping season. Since its launch three years ago, it has led to a 470 percent increase in online giving on that day and has racked up more than 15 billion media impressions. It also illustrates the potency of these three mindsets. 

As Asha Curran, director of innovation and social impact at 92Y explained to me, “We jettisoned traditional philanthropic approaches that focus on content creation and a single organization’s branding; instead, we moved to an open-framework model for people to fill in as they choose. That required a constant emphasis on internal and external collaboration, and vigorous, ongoing questioning to test our assumptions. The staff who led the project were largely operating outside their typical job roles, so encouraging a mindset of resilience to enable learning, reflection, and experimentation was indispensable. In fact, we used these mindsets to change a bigger global mindset about what a philanthropic campaign should look like.”  

We cannot overcome today’s social challenges without sustainable innovation. Imagine, then, if social sector leaders learned to value these mindsets, signal when each is appropriate, and help their teams exhibit them. That is “name calling” we all can support.

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