Adaptive mindsets: building resilience on the other side of COVID-19 lockdowns

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The lockdowns are being lifted. Whether self-imposed or through government authority, this period of stasis is ending. Our process of re-engagement has begun.

We’re all grieving missed opportunities – seminars not attended, business deals now in limbo, cancelled trips. But as Sir Richard Branson likes to say, “Business opportunities are like buses. There’s always another coming around”. One meeting is nothing in a lifetime of meetings. One deal is just one deal.

I asked my family, friends and clients to reflect on opportunities lost, on the decisions that they could not make and whether those opportunities were bullets that they had dodged. Their responses were revealing.

Opportunity from adversity 

The founder of an exciting start-up in Silicon Valley, offered my friend’s son (we’ll call him S) a ‘dream job’. S, young and ambitious, bought into the vision and the opportunity to grow a new business. He was all set to give up a steady job and equity in his existing company – when I asked him if that was wise, he said, “Entrepreneurs need to have ownership interest”.

But then COVID-19  struck. The start-up laid off people and is struggling for survival. It turned out COVID-19 merely sped up what would have happened anyway. S dodged that bullet. His reflection: he fell for an interesting vision, the founder’s charisma and a desire to be a part of the successful start-up club.

S is very smart. He based his decision on his analysis of the business model and the track record of the founder. He believed everything else would fall in place. But it simply wasn’t enough, and it will not be enough as we continue to adapt to the ‘new normal’. 

Becoming adaptive 

Our perspective, the way we will now look at the world, will determine how we deal with the crisis. The right perspective, based on an adaptive mindset, has a way of cutting obstacles—and adversity—down to size. To adapt is to think – to view a crisis from a fresh angle so it loses its power over you.

It’s clear that the wide divergence between those who adapt and those who adapt badly or not at all will be very high. COVID-19’s hit list includes real estate, dating, restaurant buffets, news media and in-store shopping.

While there are many factors that will shape the divergence, the way we think and respond is a key factor in our control. Awareness of how we think and the ability to harness the inherent diversity of thinking in organisations is key to adapting.

Dealing with adaptive challenges 

According to Ryan Holiday, perspective has two definitions. Context: a sense of the larger picture of the world, not just what is immediately in front of us, and Framing: an individual’s unique way of looking at the world.

Both definitions matter. We must deal with changes that are ‘adaptive,’ or ‘technical,’ or a combination of both.  According to Havard Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership Ronald Heifetz, “Technical problems, while often challenging, can be solved by applying existing know-how and the organisation’s current problem-solving processes. Adaptive problems resist these kinds of solutions because they require individuals throughout the organisation to change their mindsets because often the challenge lies within, in the way we think”.

How do we distinguish between adaptive and technical changes?

As we learn to coexist with COVID-19, organisations are opening up and they need to be COVID-compliant. To treat this as only a technical change is natural as we create standard operating procedures and follow guidelines given by the government. But to assume that this challenge is primarily a technical one may mask actual issues. 

You might discover that your otherwise motivated employees are reluctant to come into the office because they have elderly parents staying with them. Or your CEO is more concerned with the business than their employees, showing little sympathy for staff concerns. Whatever the underlying problems, standard operating procedures can’t solve them. Instead, changes in behaviour need to occur, and that won’t be easy.

The Whole Brain® Model is a framework that enables us to think about both adaptive and technical challenges and prepare better for the challenges ahead.

Whole Brain® thinking and being adaptive 

The Whole Brain Thinking Model

The four-colour quadrant graphic and Whole Brain are registered trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC. © 2020 Herrmann Global, LCC.

Ned Herrmann was a polymath, a singer (he sang at Carnegie Hall), a sculptor, a physicist and the head of Management Development at GE. Ned experienced an epiphany after reading an article by Henry Mintzberg in the HBR. The article asked a powerful question that haunted him, “How come managers can be so smart and yet dull at the same time?”. 

This question intrigued him – it was vital to helping him understand himself better. GE supported Ned’s experiments and applications and the pursuit of the ‘aha’ moment. It was these activities that led to the development of the Whole Brain® concept and the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument®.

Better understanding thinking preferences 

The model serves as an organising principle for how the brain works, depicting the four different thinking preferences: A–logical and analytical, B–detailed and structured, C–people-oriented and participatory, and D–conceptual and risk-taking. Although an individual may prefer certain modes of thinking over others, everyone has access to all four quadrants. It’s a metaphor for the brain and an organising principle of our thinking preferences. 

Everyone has thinking preferences. Just as important, everyone can adapt their thinking as the situation demands.

The more people are aware of how they and others think and how thinking frames their perspective, the more adaptive they can be. One can find out by completing the HBDI®.

Each quadrant is a frame of thinking or a mindset through which people view the world. Research by Herrmann International has shown that 93% of the population around the world prefers two or more thinking preferences and all have access to all four. Thus, we are in fact “hard wired to be whole”, with each of us having a glimpse of the view from all four quadrants.

Back to work in a post-COVID world

It’s time for people to re-engage and get back to work or offices. Not everyone can work permanently from home. But as leaders are discovering, re-engagement is not an on-off switch. For most people, safety is a concern.

How COVID-safe is the office or the environment? People will be apprehensive because their perspective on safety will differ and the crisis has a way of accentuating differences. Ensuring that the office is COVID-safe can turn into an obstacle with recurring issues. This is an adaptive challenge that requires an adaptive mindset. However, there is another way. 

Develop a Whole Brain® Thinking perspective

A balanced Whole Brain® perspective is a blend of behaviours and rules that allow people who think differently to engage with each other to narrow the gaps in perception and understand what is acceptable to all.

The 3SP – building resilience 

We build resilience through discipline and habits.

The 3SP – the 3 Step Practice- is a habit. It trains us to be more flexible, open to fresh ideas and eager to understand the differences in perspectives.

By practising these three steps, individuals and teams can use the full spectrum of thinking available.

Step 1: context

Context is always the most easily misunderstood and spending time on understanding the context as everyone ‘sees’ it is important. It’s also because we mix up ‘adaptive,’ and ‘technical’ challenges. For those of us driving change, recognising the difference between the two while setting the context is important.

In this step, we ‘walk around’ each quadrant and identify the perspective as seen through that quadrant. If it’s a team, then those in the team who have a strong ‘blue’ or quadrant A preferences will lead the way in developing a ‘blue’ perspective and so on. Once the team agrees that they have covered all issues, what you have is a Whole Brain Perspective for a COVID-safe workplace.

Step 2: prioritise

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still keep the ability to function”. Similarly, someone with an adaptive mindset will identify priorities in their quadrants and will pay attention to the opposing priorities of others. They begin to ‘see’ how these ‘opposing’ priorities are equally essential to addressing the larger challenge. People in the unit who are more dominant in ‘yellow’ would favour a minimum-touch protocol. They would immediately disagree with those in the unit who are more dominant in ‘green’ and who would insist on rearranging facilities in line with social distancing guidelines.

They are both right. The trick is enabling people to catch each other being right early on, so they can find a way forward, before hardening their positions.

Step 3: find a way

Creative abrasion is a process key to recognising and dealing with adaptive challenges. It’s when people who think differently, deliberately challenge each other’s priorities. They generate better ideas, knowing that their disagreement will not lead to personal conflict. It elevates the quality of thinking in the unit, energising them to explore more options and possibilities.

For creative abrasion to flourish, everyone must speak the same language. This understanding enables team members to find a way through the contradictions and reactions of team members. If a person who is high ‘blue’ recognises that a person who is ‘red’ will view things personally, she could understand the person better and reduce friction by not judging her immediately.

Thinking big at a volatile time 

The 3SP can be very productive when leaders or teams address the operational challenges in the near-term. However, in these uncertain times, leaders are under pressure to profess knowledge they do not and cannot have about the long-term, and to make decisions about the future that could backfire.

As a coach, I notice it’s difficult for some leaders to make the shift to see the big picture and to think long-term. Paradoxically, it’s their focus on results and finding solutions that get in the way. As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

Thinking big is the ability to maintain perspective amid action. It’s critical to lowering resistance. It’s about maintaining the capacity for reflection, especially in the ‘fog of war’. Exceptional athletes simultaneously play the game and observe it as a whole. That is how Tiger Woods utterly dominated the game in his heyday. Most golfers think ‘tee to green’. When they step up to the tee, they pull out a driver and hit the biggest shot every time. They don’t look at the pin, because it’s out of reach and doesn’t seem relevant. Tiger, on the other hand, thought ‘green to tee,’ and inverted his thinking, looking far away to the pin. In the British Open of 2006, which he won, Tiger used his driver only twice.

What’s going on here?

The question “What is going on here?” sounds innocuous, but it’s not. When the preoccupation is on the day-to-day, leaders need to stand back and look at problems in detail from all four perspectives. 

We often make that mistake in our personal lives. All of us make choices that require thinking about the future. Buying a house and preparing for retirement are important financial decisions. But few of us plan in any organised way. While we might take time to prepare a checklist, when push comes to shove, we often make the final decision rather quickly based on a reaction or the opinion of someone’s whose advice matters, rather than the checklist. When faced with choices – investing in equity, selecting one mutual fund over another – we often prefer to procrastinate. The default option, which requires no action, is usually most popular.

Think big and ‘walk around’

Whole Brain® Thinking can turn the question, “What’s going on here?” into a powerful tool for the unit to debate and decide what to do in conditions of radical uncertainty. Walking around each quadrant and asking this question will help create a more nuanced and detailed picture.

The power is not in the question but in the whole brained debate that reduces divergence. It separates those of us who only compromise and those of us who adapt.

What could S have done differently?

S’ HBDI® profile

Well, he did complete his HBDI® online – his scores were low on blue and green and high on red and yellow.

But stepping back and walking around all four quadrants and asking himself, “What’s going on here?” would have made a big difference. For example, from a blue quadrant perspective, he would have spent more time analysing the business model. He could have drilled deeper, challenged his assumptions and asked more specific questions.

Thinking in the green quadrant would have made him question his assumptions on the risks involved. Better still, he could have paired up with someone who was more blue and green and tapped into their thinking.

We can’t plan for all outcomes, but at least we can all be better prepared. As Dan Gilbert said, “Man is the only animal that can think about the future”. The brain is a predictive machine, but it would be hasty to trust our brains unconditionally.

According to Dan, “We imagine the future and tend to do so in the blind spot of our mind’s eye…The futures we imagine contain details that our brains invented and details that our brains left out. We imagine futures uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details that the brain has imagined”.

We can’t stop thinking about the future. But we can think about it together, critically and leveraging our differences in thinking in a whole brained way. As Nick Holley said, “We can make the shift from thinking about planning for a forecastable future to preparing for a future where the only outcome we won’t get is the one we predict.”

Life after COVID-19 

The post-COVID-19 world is going to demand more from all of us in terms of the skills we need to sharpen, the behaviours we need to demonstrate and the habits we need to acquire.

Whole Brain® Thinking is a habit that will enhance our ability to meet these demands and to adapt to the ‘new normal’ through easily assimilated practices like the 3SP, thinking big and ‘walking around’ all four quadrants.

In the words of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good Roman Emperors, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Interested in learning more about Whole Brain® ThinkingGet in touch with Herrmann.

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This guest post is published with permission from our partner, Prasad Deshpande, CEO of Empowered Learning LLP.