Design is the rendering of intent - it requires thinking about the future state of a service or product and putting forth activities to make that outcome real. And it’s fraught with failure. As most designers know, the more creative and forward-thinking the vision, the greater the chances of failing along the way. Thus, the really great designers not only accept, but celebrate failure as an essential part of the design process.
However, some people have a very difficult time dealing with failure. According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, these individuals operate from a fixed mindset. They view failure as a referendum on their self-worth and innate abilities - proof that they’re not good enough. This cripples creativity.
There’s another group of people, which according to Dweck, tend to view failure as an opportunity for learning and growth. These individuals operate from a growth mindset. Unlike individuals with a fixed mindset, they don’t worry about getting the wrong answer because they know that it’s not a reflection of who they are, but of what they don’t know yet. In order to unlock breakthrough ideas and creativity, companies need more people with a growth mindset, people who aren’t afraid of failure, and can see challenging situations as opportunities for learning and growth.
At ZURB, we work hard to cultivate a growth-mindset culture, to encourage our team members to take risks, fail, learn and repeat. Our 20+ years of experience has shown us that one of the fastest and most effective ways to cultivate a growth mindset is by encouraging team members to deliberately seek out feedback. Feedback challenges our ideas, exposes our blind spots, and provides a springboard for growth and improvement.
Keep reading to learn how we leverage continuous, structured feedback to cultivate a growth mindset at ZURB.
Difference Between a Fixed and Growth Mindset
In her famous book, “Mindset”, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck explains how the view (or mindset) we adopt for ourselves profoundly affects the way we lead our lives and respond to failure.
Dweck distinguishes between two different mindsets: fixed and growth. She argues that these mindsets drive a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.
Fixed Mindset: Individuals who believe their talents are innate gifts and can’t be changed in any meaningful way. They believe that their ability to grow and improve is limited and finite.
Growth Mindset: Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others). They believe that their ability to achieve growth and improvement is unlimited and infinite.
When it comes to success, those with a fixed mindset view success as an affirmation of their inherent intelligence, an assessment of how their given taits measure up against an equally fixed standard. Failure is viewed as a lack of necessary basic abilities. As a result, those with a “fixed mindset” strive for success and avoid failure at all costs. They strive to be right believing it will make them competent. However, striving to impress others causes people to do what they know rather than explore what they don’t know.
Individuals with a growth mindset tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning. They thrive on challenge and see failure as an opportunity for learning and stretching existing abilities, rather than evidence of unintelligence.
Why Having a Growth Mindset is Critical to Design
Given the speed at which technology is forcing change, it’s now impossible to be an effective designer without having a growth mindset. That’s because individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to be creative, humble and open minded - all necessary ingredients for creativity and innovation.
Creativity & Failure
Design requires thinking about the future state of a service or product - it requires innovation. Creativity and failure are integral to innovation. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that creativity is not a genetically preset trait, but rather something that can be cultivated through practice and collaboration with other people. This belief drives them to constantly experiment with new approaches and ways of thinking, rather than getting fixated on the ‘right answer’.
Moreover, to create truly innovative products, designers must be willing to make mistakes and fail over and over again. They must also be able to acknowledge their mistakes and work through them, often in a public way, in order to extract maximum learnings. This is no small feat. Failure can be painfully revealing and requires a level of vulnerability that is difficult for most people to bear. This is only possible with a growth mindset. For individuals with a growth mindset failure isn’t a permanent state or an indicator that they lack basic abilities. They view failure as an opportunity to develop and iterate on an idea further.
It is only by viewing failure as an opportunity - rather than a permanent set back - that designers can achieve the level of excellence necessary to create game-changing products. This view of failure significantly alleviates performance anxiety, imposter syndrome, and stage fright, all of which are common in design, and detrimental to creativity.
In contrast, individuals with a fixed mindset view failure as evidence of their lack of abilities - which are innate. This creates a desire to avoid failure at all costs. For many individuals, this creates a need to ‘fit in’ and appear as though they have all the right answers, which severely limits their ability to learn, grow, and generate new insights and solutions. Thus, when faced with a new challenge and the possibility of failure, a fixed mindset person will just get discouraged. A large gap, lack of curiosity, or discipline will prevent that person from trying to learn.
Humility & Open Mindedness
To have a growth mindset, you must be humble (willing to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers) and open to new ideas. It’s called the “beginner’s mind,” the idea that the mind of a beginner is more plastic, malleable, and able to see new possibility, much more so than the expert. As Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, writes "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few."
In order for individuals to keep imagining and creating new possibilities, they must approach design with a beginner’s mind - believing that there’s a possibility that you can learn something. This is critical to a growth mindset. The more open minded one is, the more they’re able to ‘see the big picture’ - the broader perspective of a problem or solution. However, seeing the ‘bigger’ picture also means accepting (and embracing!), often publicly, how much you don’t know. It also means being humble enough to seek out feedback and answers from other people. This is no small feat.
Indeed, individuals with a fixed mindset tend to interpret a ‘lack of knowledge’ as a lack of innate ability, and avoid sharing it to other people. Worst of all, the fear of exposing their ignorance will prevent them from seeking out answers and feedback from individuals who know more, thus limiting their ability to generate new knowledge and ideas.
Individuals with a growth mindset, on the other hand, will embrace the uncertainty as an opportunity to learn and improve. Moreover, they’ll seek out relationships with people who will challenge and encourage growth.
Feedback is Key to a Growth Mindset
At ZURB, we rely on growth mindset-minded individuals to drive our creativity forward. And one of the quickest and most effective ways we cultivate a growth mindset among our team members is through feedback and praise.
We make a clear distinction between feedback and praise. We encourage our team members to actively collect and give honest, and sometimes critical feedback because we believe that it’s instrumental to growth. However, we also believe in praising individuals for their work and, their process, rather than simply applauding their outcomes. It’s the marriage of these two concepts that cultivates a supportive and growth-minded culture.
We believe that asking for feedback is the fastest, most effective way to practice having a growth mindset, and we encourage our team members to do regularly.
Asking for feedback is very different from unsolicited feedback. When the latter happens our defenses are automatically raised, our amygdala responds and we have a fight or flight moment. We tend to debate, rationalize, react, and oftentimes, reject the feedback. However, when we ask for feedback we’re automatically in a better position to listen to the feedback, ask clarifying questions, and then accept the remarks.
Encouraging feedback promotes 4 things that are essential for a growth mindset:
Creation: In order to receive feedback, one must first create something and put it out into the world. This is critical to a growth mindset because one cannot learn without creating.
Humility: By asking for feedback an individual is acknowledging that what they have created isn’t perfect, and that’s ok.
Collaboration: Gathering feedback requires engaging with people who think differently than you are and who challenge you. Moreover, when both people have a shared interest in an outcome, we achieve synergy which can propel ideas even further. This is the most effective way to keep growing.
Learning: Gathering feedback is the fastest way to be held accountable and to keep learning and improving.
How We Cultivate a Growth Mindset: The Jump
How do you get good at feedback? Listening to feedback can be difficult to accept, and learning to repeatedly seek it out can be even harder. We realized at ZURB how important feedback is for cultivating a growth mindset, so we developed a feedback collection process called a Jump. A Jump helps us create discipline in soliciting and giving feedback, as well at the repetition necessary for learning to happening in a structured way.
A Jump is a way for individuals to take control of their own learning by asking for consistent, structured feedback. There are four actions in a Jump: Create, Show, React and Shape. In each action, there are specific tasks that push the Jump forward.
To break it down:
This means create something! Usually in the form of a deliverable that can be shared with others. It doesn’t have to be anything big - it can be a document that you’re working on, a campaign, a design, it doesn’t matter. The point is, create something that can be shared, so you can receive feedback and improve.
Show your work to people that give you honest and open feedback. This is a great way to practice explaining the goals, objectives, target audience, and rationale for your deliverable. This is an opportunity to prime your audience and get them excited about participating in the feedback loop.
Now you can ask for feedback. Remember that feedback is an opportunity to learn and improve. It shouldn’t be taken personally. This can be hard, but you can train yourself to separate these feelings. Use these steps for slowing down, listening and getting the most from people willing to give feedback:
Stop your first reaction
Remember the benefit of getting feedback
Listen for understanding
Say thank you
Ask questions to deconstruct the feedback
Rate your response to the feedback
At ZURB, we see that our top project team members are often high performers specifically because they’re really good at accepting feedback to fuel their own growth. Turns out this is also true for leaders: Recent research found that top ranked leaders (those who average a score at the 83rd percentile on leadership effectiveness) are also at the top in asking for feedback.
And this last part ‘Rate your response to feedback’ is especially important. According to Ray Dalio, “we ought to be given feedback not only about whatever we’ve done poorly, but also about how we react to and reflect on being told that we’ve done something poorly. That’s why it’s important to rate yourself everytime you receive feedback, on how well you responded to that feedback. As Dalio writes, “When someone gives you feedback, they’ve already evaluated you. So it helps to remind yourself that the main thing they’re judging is whether you’re open or defensive.” As with most things, this takes a shift in how you view feedback (as a ‘gift’ rather than as a ‘curse’) and lots of practice.
This is your opportunity to synthesize the feedback you received. Don’t just pick the top two types of feedback, try to incorporate all your feedback into a summary, and then use it to improve your work. This action will completely set you apart from your peers and defines the best workers. A shaper doesn’t just listen to the feedback, they create new possibilities from other people’s input.
And that’s it! You’ve completed your first Jump. At ZURB we run Jumps a few times a day across projects - but you don’t need to go that far. The important thing is to get in the habit of creating, showing, reacting and shaping - with feedback. This is the quickest and most effective way to reach higher levels of excellence.
And one more note on Praise...
One of the exercises we do at ZURB is force designers to do sketches in a three hour timebox. We state a design problem and ask designers to sketch 45 different ‘opportunities”. The goal of the activity isn’t to get perfect sketches or find all the right answers. The exercise is meant to show a designer how to create lots of solutions, develop a process to work past the obvious answers and learn how to hold themselves accountable to the creation of ideas.
When a designer finishes the exercise, we praise them for their effort- regardless of whether they got it right. This is called ‘process praise’ and it’s an important component to feedback. Just as much as feedback is necessary for continued improvement, process praise is a way to encourage team members and not get stuck on ideas. This is in line with multiple studies which found that students who received praise focused on their efforts and strategies enter a growth mindset, work harder, become more resilient, and perform better than students who were praised for their talents and abilities.
Since failure is such an inevitable and essential part of design, it’s important to be surrounded by people who can not only accept, but embrace failure. And one way to do this is to cultivate a growth mindset, both among team members as well as the organization as a whole.
At ZURB, we realize that one of the best ways to cultivate a growth mindset is to encourage team members to ask for feedback. Using our JUMP feedback model, team members can systematically integrate feedback into their day to day activities. Moreover, we make sure to praise team members on their efforts and strategy, regardless of the results. Together, feedback and praise help promote a more growth-minded-driven culture at ZURB. We’d love to hear your thoughts! How do you promote a growth-mindset in your company?
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998