An adaptable mindset is a prerequisite for innovation

Innovation plays a fundamental role in helping organizations stay relevant, and it will continue to dominate the future of our economy. As the world is becoming more complex by the day, with an accelerating pace at which technologies develop, it is also more and more challenging to keep up and stay sane at the same time.

It is our belief that you have to continuously train your mindset to be more adaptable – and the research is on our side. Numerous studies about the future of work conclude that adaptability is one of the key skills we need to develop for the future. People with an adaptable mindset are continuous learners and have proven to be more resilient, happier, more creative, and more productive. Here are a few ways you can build an adaptable mindset within yourself and within your teams:

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Humans are naturally resistant to the stress, uncertainty, and ambiguity that comes with change. Neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux discovered that when we are under a lot of stress, the areas of the brain that are in charge of rational thinking, decision making, memory, and objective evaluation can reduce activity by up to 80%.

Another study showed that when we perceivee stress differently, we can actually diminish its negative effects. In this study, a group of people was asked if they felt high levels of stress and whether they perceived stress as harmful. People who experienced high levels of stress had a 43% higher risk of mortality, but that was only true for the people who believed that stress was harmful to their health. People with high levels of stress who did not see it as harmful and had the lowest risk levels.

The key solution to reducing stress is to positively change our view of the challenges that bring us stress and uncertainty, while also improving our resilient leadership. If we can trigger our curiosity instead of our anxiety and tap into our sources of inspiration and find new perspectives, positive energy will flow in a natural way. New research shows that if we can create the right environment, even people that are less curious by nature can become more inquisitive.

It is time to reframe work: The case for doing nothing

In order to create an environment where everyone can flourish, we need to start to think and act differently when it comes to work. We spend such a large part of our life at work that for many of us, work has become our identity. Work most often implies going from meeting to meeting, which leaves little to no room for curiosity, play, experimentation, and exploration. We end up in a vicious spiral running the day-to-day tasks, getting stuck in trying to solve the same problems over and over again that never go away.

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” To break free from our daily work routines, we need room for creativity, adaptability, and openness to new ideas. Opening ourselves up to different worlds will lead to new, often surprising, ideas and solutions. As Steven Johnson explains in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” ideas need to come together, to marry, and to incubate.

World-changing ideas generally evolve over time as slow hunches rather than sudden breakthroughs. Slow time is essential. Both Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein did a lot of nothing. Einstein loved to take out a sailboat and float around aimlessly for hours. He was even stopped by the police in 1939 for wandering around a beach lost in thought. He understood that the best ideas often come when you are doing nothing.

The importance of exploration

There are great examples of people who spend time exploring and synthesizing ideas from a vast array of inspiration. If we know that’s where great ideas come from, why don’t we embrace this way of working? Innovators like Elon Musk and Paul Graham (Y Combinator) say they learn from all aspects of life, from games and tech to art and movies to philosophy and nature – whatever attracts their curiosity.

Zhang Ruimin, the CEO of Haier, took inspiration from nature as he designed his company based on a rainforest. He says: “In a rainforest, you don’t have to plant trees, you don’t have to trim the trees, you don’t even have to fertilize the trees. It’s like business. Once you’ve made a system, you don’t need to help the employees. The system takes care of itself. This system is complicated and is difficult to copy. You can replicate a product, a technology, but not a system.”

Bas Ording, who worked on the design of the first iPhone and Mac OS, designed the feature “mission control” that allows Mac users to look at all of their windows at once, which was inspired by a gesture-based touchscreen computer from Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi movie “Minority Report.”

By chance, Coco Chanel met with Russian creative impresario Sergei Diaghilev of the renowned Ballet Russes in Venice. She designed some of the costumes for his ballet “Le Train Bleu.” During the rehearsals, she noted that her costumes, although soft and comfortable, were restricting movement. She reworked her designs directly on the dancers, striving for complete symbiosis of the body and the fabric. It is here where she laid the foundation of the fashion she wanted to offer women: a body freed so it mastered its movements, a new articulation of femininity. “Always remove, always take away. Never add anything… Nothing is more beautiful than the freedom of the body,” she said. Today, this “less is more” philosophy is part of Chanel’s DNA.

Chanel, in turn, inspired Salvador Dali. She let Dali stay in her home to work on his paintings, where he created his “Apparition of face and fruit dish on a beach,” a complex piece with multiple layers of optical illusions.

Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded a Nobel prize for capturing the structure of penicillin from crystallographic X-ray studies. This structure opened new avenues for creating and developing derivatives of penicillin that sparked the creation of antibiotic treatments. Part of her process was drawing projections of crystal structures and overlaying these on top of each other. She had developed her drawing skills during childhood, which proved to be one of the keys to her success. This practice helped her see what was going on in her mathematical crystallography experiments.

What are your sources of inspiration and energy?

As the examples show, inspiration can come from many different places. Understanding what gives you energy is the first step. What triggers your curiosity? Some sources of inspiration may be very obvious to you, while other sources may lay more hidden beneath the surface. Besides finding your sources of inspiration, it is also important to understand what blocks you: What is holding you back from fully tapping into your energy sources?

This is a reflection you can do individually, but it also works well as a team exercise. By getting a better understanding of what fires up your colleagues, as well as what blocks them from reaching their full potential, you can help each other unblock your barriers.

"This won't work in my company"

For some teams and businesses, spending time finding inspiration and sharing this with each other may feel uncomfortable. But as the examples above show, the best ideas come when you let your mind wander, when you spark your curiosity, and when you’ve developed the ability to look at a problem from different perspectives.

When you let people find what energizes them and intrinsically motivates them, you will also get a higher innovative and creative outcome, according to research published in Frontiers in Psychology. It makes both human sense and business sense to fuse this connection.

To create space to work on this you can start with small “work hacks” or breaks for cognitive recovery, such as scheduling 30-minute meetings or blocking some time in between calls to prevent days fully stacked with meetings with no breathing space. Google CEO Sundar Pichai schedules time in his calendar to read, think, and create space for himself. Once you and your team have gotten used to this change, you can add a new hack – for instance, having some meetings or calls while you walk outside. Slowly, you will free up more and more time for exploration, which will make you and your team more resilient, adaptive, and effective.

This might also be the answer to one of the biggest challenges that lie ahead of us. If people learn how to adapt on their own, with their teams, and thus as an organization, you won’t have to set up large, costly programs to reskill 40% of the workforce. You won’t have to be afraid of new methodologies or technologies, because your people will already be experimenting and adapting it into their being.

In conclusion: Your adaptable mindset

“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view” – George Eliot. 

The human brain and body are fascinating. We are very adaptable if we open up ourselves to it. Our state of mind influences our behavior, and we can modulate our state of mind. We can control how we react to things. We can teach people to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty, to reframe situations, to come up with new perspectives, to develop more compassion, to mitigate stress, to become more creative, to have more fun, and to make better decisions – all at the same time.

How well are you training your adaptability?

This article was written together with Robert Overweg and was originally published on the platform of THNK, School for Creative Leadership.

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