Transformation and Mindset

The term "mindset", as generally conceived in everyday talk, is what goes on inside a person that enables them to perceive and evaluate the world around them, and select their responses and intentions towards the world. However, in this article I will narrow the concept of Mindset to a more formal definition to enable us to understand the dynamics of personal and organizational transformation.
(This article is based on material originally conceived by Joe van Staden. Joe can be contacted at joevs at iburst dot co dot za)

The Anatomy of Mindset
There are three components that make up the idea of mindset. Each of the three components interacts and overlaps with the other, but we can distil them apart slightly in order to understand what is happening.

The three parts of Mindset are: Attention, Orientation and Variation, Change and Difference (VCD).

Variation, Change and Difference
The grand chasm of transformation is the space between what presently exists and what is envisioned to exist in the future. The gap between these two positions can always be described using one of the terms Variation, Change or Difference.

Psychology tells us that all human activity derives its energy from some form of "stress". Sometimes this is expressed as potential, or ambition or a creative tension. The human genetic drive to survive, both as individuals and as a species, is fuelled by this gap.

But we also know that this stress gap (or in the terminology of mindset, VCD) is most effective in generating action when it is perceived to be in the "ideal" range. Too much stress causes anxiety, which becomes debilitating and inhibits action. Too little motivation or drive, and inertia cannot be overcome in order to perform. The ideal range, which we can also refer to as optimal, is a state in which "flow" is experienced - the phenomenon of the demands upon us, and the available resources we have for action is always in balance, and is sustainable.

The obvious question then arises: How much VCD is too much? How much VCD is too little? Intuitively we know that different people will experience the same VCD differently. Or the same person may experience the same VCD differently on a different day. These differences can be attributed to the idea of Orientation. We define Orientation to be the degree of coherence between our current "frame of reference", and the context we are being asked to assimilate. By frame of reference we mean the entirety of our experiences, knowledge, beliefs, values and other spiritual, mental, emotional and physical factors that create the lenses by which we see ourselves and our world.

What makes for high coherence or low coherence between this frame of reference and what we are being asked to see? The first factor is the quantity of reference points between our current frame of reference and the new context. When we have many points by which we are able to pinpoint our positions in the new context, we are better able to orient ourselves in this new framework; fewer points of connection and we begin to flounder. It is like having lots of tiny little candles around the house on a dark night -- they need not be bright, but they provide a set of landmarks that match the landmarks on our "map" of the house.

The second factor that affects the quality of our Orientation is the magnitude, or quality of the reference points. On a dark night, a sudden lightening flash illuminates everything for a brief moment and we are able to find our position. Orientation is made easier when there are strong anchoring reference points in the new context that match up with strong anchoring reference points in our own view of the world.

The upshot of the previous two concepts (VCD and Orientation) is that when these two factors combine and interact they create either a Functional or a Dysfunctional Mindset. To be clear here, functional and dysfunctional are not pejorative terms to say that one person\'s frame of reference is better or worse than another\'s. Merely what we are saying is that the degree to which a person\'s ability to tolerate the VCD (either because the VCD is very high, or because their Orientation is very low) is therefore an indicator of how well that person will be able to stay in touch with, and adapt to an ever-changing set of contexts. (We should note here that the VCD between our current perceived reality and the new required reality does not need to be real -- an imagined future is just as likely to evoke the tolerance / intolerance trigger as an physically perceived one.)

The implication of an under- or over-extended tolerance for our ability to effectively change, lies in this maxim: where attention goes, energy flows. So in the case where there is too little VCD and Orientation induced stress on an individual, there will be too few markers upon which the person may place their attention. Conversely, where this too much VCD and Orientation induced stress, there are too many competing markers vying to be heard. The result of either of these two scenarios is that attention will either be scattered, or it will become fixated. It is unlikely that either of these two psychological states will allow for an intentional and deliberate placing of attention where it is most needed. Therefore energy for action will either be dispersed (and therefore wasted), or it will become located upon an irrelevant focus point (and will therefore be wasted).

Implications for Leaders and Transformation Practitioners
Given that leaders and consultants are faced with the above paradigm, there are three ways in which we can make a structured and intentional impact on systems within which we are working.

  1. Establishing Intent Seeing, defining and articulating the ideal future is tricky work. Almost always it is a guess. Sometimes the worst foretellers of the future are experts who, through vanity, are locked into a desire for the future to support their current expertise. Nevertheless, great leaders can take a fifty-fifty view and step up the chances of success ? not through accurate prediction, but through actionable persistence.
  2. Minding the Gap With clear intent comes the risk of articulating a picture that is too far away, too close by, or too generic. Naming the future should therefore be a carefully considered activity that communicates the Variation, Change or Difference in a way that makes it possible for as many followers as possible to orient themselves comfortably and thus enjoy functional mindsets regarding the transformation. Bear in mind that moving towards some people?s current worldview will probably mean moving away from other people?s ? so be careful about a single generic form of the message, and be prepared to rephrase the words without diluting the intent.
  3. Focusing Attention Even so, with the unpredictability of how well everyone is oriented, leaders and change agents will need to determine for each person whether they are under- or over-tolerant towards the transformation and hence whether they are experiencing fixation of attention or whether they are experiencing scattering of attention. Get in tune with people and where they sit with regard to these two possibilities. Then gently bring their attention across from an incorrectly placed, fixated position, or collect the dispersed and scattered attention towards the next required action.


All transformation journeys start within. Please do not hope to change the system of which you are a part without doing the work of deep contemplation. What is your own intent? How do you feel about the gap? Where is your attention right now?