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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

How can you develop an innovative mindset? Our experience with Essex County Council

Mindset. It’s a term we both hear and use repeatedly in our work within public sector innovation, particularly when discussing change, transformation or learning programmes. Developing an ‘experimental’ or ‘innovative’ mindset is agreed upon as the goal, but often without pinning down what that actually looks like.

Working with Essex County Council (ECC) recently, we developed a learning programme that delved into the driving forces behind the behaviours and decisions of its staff, which helped us to pinpoint where and how we could better support their mindset development.

Why mindsets?

Mindsets can be a nebulous concept. Defined as a person’s way of thinking, they’re opinions or a collection of attitudes. It’s a commonly used word, whether talking about people having a creative mindset or a social mindset, or as referred to more prominently in recent years Carol Dweck’s growth or fixed mindset.

In whatever guise mindsets come, they’re understood to be the set of beliefs we hold that help us to understand and react to reality, and our intentions to shape it in a certain way. These differ depending on culture, experiences, education and work. Attitudes grow from our beliefs and experiences, and shape how we respond and feel towards certain situations, things or people.

If mindsets inform how you perceive situations, what you pay attention to, how you make sense of them, and ultimately, how you decide to act, then essentially, they are a set of beliefs which shape how you see, think, and act.

A triangle with the words attitudes and beliefs in the centre, and then see, think and act in each corner

See refers to our perception system - what we see and hear, not just in the physical world, but socially, culturally, politically. How we ‘see’ things is largely determined by the ‘frames’ we use to make sense of reality. These are often shaped by our education, work experiences, cultural backgrounds. For example, when an urban planner looks at traffic congestion, they may see infrastructure as the main issue. When a psychologist looks at it, they may think about human behaviour.

Think refers to the way we make sense of situations (consciously or subconsciously). We develop mental models of how the world works and anticipate how causes and effects may lead to certain situations. This also affects the way we interpret information, create patterns and ask critical questions.

Act refers to the ways we use the data and signals we see and think about to inform the behaviours and activities we deem possible and appropriate, and the manner in which we’ll carry them out.

What is an innovative mindset?

To establish the key elements of an ‘innovative mindset’ we drew on our competency framework, which delves into the key skills, attitudes and behaviours that public sector innovators combine to successfully tackle problems. We took the three ‘skill areas’ to shape the three core mindsets: The Collaborative Mindset, the Experimental Mindset and the Action Mindset.

3 circles showing the 3 innovative mindsets - collaborative, experimental and action

Collaborative: Driven by the “we” rather than the “me”

This mindset seeks to understand situations from multiple perspectives. It is concerned with demonstrating empathy and humility to better connect, engage, understand and help build ideas with, rather than for, people.

Experimental: Led by curiosity and the desire to learn

This mindset focuses on learning - through lived experiences, learning from others or just trying new things in a different way. Using these lessons to create solutions that best fit the challenge being tackled.

Action: The optimistic driver pushing for change.

This mindset requires the energy and belief that things can be done to alter and improve the status quo, and that there are opportunities within the environment which can be seized upon. It is concerned with helping create the conditions for change and action, either through gaining support, mobilising people, resources or spreading knowledge and examples of success.

Shifting mindsets in Essex

Like many other councils across the UK, ECC is responding to increasingly complex challenges with ever limited resources. As a result, their Organisation Development and People team (ODP) are currently undertaking several initiatives to transform the culture of their workforce, instilling a more innovative approach to the work their 6,500 employees carry out.

The Mindset Challenge built on the 9-12 month learning programmes we’ve run in Canada and Australia as part of States of Change, where independent evaluation indicates that participants’ mindsets were challenged and had shifted. These longer programmes had time built in for teams to rehearse new tools and methods on live projects, which gave them space to reflect with the support of their faculty and peers. But we wondered if this could be replicated in different contexts.

With the support of the ODP team, we designed a programme for ECC that would start by creating the safe space we knew would prompt the right level of debate and peer learning. Participants were encouraged to openly reflect on the challenges of working within a local council and take advantage of their peer network to create an open and supportive learning environment. Their investment in this was evident and as was their openness to learning in a different way which was more about the approach than the tools themselves. We were able to shift up a few gears and jump deeper into examining how they as a group and as individuals could take greater ownership of their own behaviour - be the change they wanted to see.

“Usually a strong jolt is needed before people realise the traditional way of doing things is no longer adequate.”

Kets de Vries, Guillen Ramo & Korotov (2009) Organisational Culture, Leadership, Change and Stress

The programme included opportunities to ‘jolt’ thinking and created multiple ‘aha!’ moments for individuals and teams. Those who participated were beginning to be more comfortable questioning the way they work, their frames, their own established beliefs, and therefore becoming more open and receptive to new, more innovative, way of working.

The two ‘Mindset Challenge’ pilots we ran (9 days and 3 days) differed in pace, content and attendance numbers - providing opportunities to test multiple aspects of the programmes. However, they both followed this general structure:

Outline of each mindset module

From skills to attitudes

Mindsets are influenced by attitudes, and they also influence attitudes themselves - so we needed to draw the key attitudes of each mindset into the programme content, as shown below:

The attitudes that go with each mindset

What we learned

The Mindset Challenge was meant to feel different from other initiatives participants had gone through. It was designed to challenge attendees and stimulate critical reflection of the way they see, think and act in their practice.

In terms of challenging mindsets, there were different responses from participants in what they thought this entailed, and how successful it had been:

  • Some saw it as a call to action, demonstrating that everyone was accountable for change in ECC, not only leadership, and illuminating immediate actions which could be taken and applied to their daily work.
  • Similarly, it increased the agency of some participants to act in their own sphere of influence: “I take away that the mindset is about changing what is in you orbit and not wanting to "boil the ocean"!”.
  • Others felt that they already possessed an innovation mindset, and that this course would be best targeted at those who didn’t.
  • Several participants stated that it acted as a reminder, not only of ways of seeing, thinking and acting, but of their purpose at ECC, which had been ‘worn away by the daily grind’.

The notion of the programme ‘feeling different’ seemed to resonate with the attendees in several ways:

  • The action learning element (rehearsing) felt new: “I haven’t been to many courses where you physically had to do stuff like build something, or interview real people. I thought it was energising and something I could practically take back with me”.
  • So did having the space to reflect on how this might be deployed in their own practice.
  • The experiential approach was viewed positively as it was more memorable, allowing participants to fully engage with the concepts as opposed to “just being taught different tools”.
  • There were also several comments surrounding the style of facilitation, in which participants felt able to have open and honest conversations, meaning that cynicism was addressed head on.

Do mindsets lead to culture change?

Staff who possess an innovative mindset are pivotal, but are still only one piece in the puzzle. The Mindset Challenge has reinforced our understanding that shifting and changing mindsets, or ways of working in the public sector, isn’t guaranteed to happen in a three-day, nine-day or even 12-month learning programme.

Overtime, people can shift mindsets - but lasting change requires an environment that actively supports them in doing so. There are much wider issues around trust, blame culture, communication, openness and fear that are prevalent and need to be addressed simultaneously. If they’re not, staff may feel more disillusion and negatively than they do currently.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss the ways individuals can recognise and seize their own agency in creating environments that will support culture change.


Kelly Duggan

Kelly Duggan

Kelly Duggan

Learning Experience Designer

Kelly was a Learning Experience Designer in the Innovation Skills team.

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Sonja Dahl

Sonja Dahl

Sonja Dahl

Director, Innovation Skills

As Director, Sonja led the team responsible for spreading innovation skills and strengthening the conditions that allow innovation to thrive.

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