The Beginner’s Mind
By Thomas M Cagley Jr.
Audio Version: SPaMCAST 177
Why is it easier for some organizations to innovate or to change more than others? Why do some organizations become less flexible after a new idea is successfully implemented? I believe that the concept of the beginner’s mind holds a substantial clue about why some people and organizations either embrace or resist change.
The beginner’s mind is a concept from Zen Buddhism known as Shoshin. The concept of the beginner’s mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. The beginner’s mind can be present even when studying at an advanced level. Quoting the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” The beginner’s mind embodies the emotional qualities of enthusiasm, creativity and optimism. These qualities are critical for tackling tough problems and for innovation. The beginner’s mind is just one framework for understanding why some organizations and individuals seems to embrace the boundlessness of the environment around them but nevertheless it is a powerful tool for self-reflection or judging change readiness.
I would like to address the idea of change willingness through the filter of the beginner’s mind from two perspectives: The first is from the point of view of the constraints we accept or create for ourselves and our organizations; and the second would be to reflect on attributes that help us accelerate embracing change.
- Many if not most people reading this essay either are or are on the way to becoming experts. Expertise can be a double-edged sword. In order to become an expert, knowledge and hopefully wisdom must be accumulated which can allow an expert to see the depth and breadth of a specific topic providing the basis to solve many problems. The effort and sacrifice required to become an expert can at the same time create barriers leading to a lack of systems thinking and flexibility. Embracing the attributes of expert-dom (note that I did not say that you should eschew knowledge or wisdom rather the behavior of being an expert) has consequences much in the same way cholesterol hardens and clogs arteries. The investment of time and effort required to become an expert can generate a need to defend our comfort zone when challenged or when circumstances change. Another classic problem with experts is that it is easy to become a one-trick pony. For example I am sure we can all think of someone that has arrived at their level of expertise by using a specific technique (for example using Scrum, Kanban or classic project management techniques). The default option is to try that one technique first without respect for changing circumstances. Taking the point of view of the beginner, it would be better to spend the time needed to review the problem even if they have seen it before. Why? It is because they would not expect the circumstances to be the same before judging whether any specific technique or piece of knowledge is relevant. I remember a mentor early in my career suggested that I practice the black art of expert-dom but not the behaviors that the moniker suggests inorder to avoid downsizing in the short run. It was a good strategy however in the longer run constant re-invention has been more effective.
- Rules and “shoulds” are an integral part of modern corporate life. Rules come in many flavors from policies (policies on sexual harassment for example), to software development lifecycles, to informal coding standards. The problem with many “shoulds” is that they reflect other peoples ideas of how we should work and what is best based on their perception of the environment. The beginner will question the rules and “shoulds” to separate what is necessary and desirable because they do not have the same preconceived notions.
End Vs Journey
- A few years ago I wrote an essay on my trek to Machu Pichu in Peru. The lost city of Machu Pichu was incredible; however much of the learning experience was derived not from the ruins themselves but from four-day hike through a myriad of climates. It would have been easier to take the train instead of carrying a backpack through the Andes: however the sites and the self-knowledge derived from the journey would have been lost. The same can be said for the problem-solving required to develop, maintain or enhance software. Knowledge is built not only from the result (Machu Pichu) but from the journey (the hike). PS – this is why we have retrospectives and post-mortems.
Fear of Failure
- As our lives become more complicated and / or we invest effort in developing a specialty, it is easy to take the safe, well-trodden path because we feel that failing represents a limitation that can’t be easily overcome or will effect more than just ourselves. By pushing us to the safe path, the fear of failure reduces the possibility of bringing innovative solutions to bear on development problems and limits the experiences that lead to learning something new. Taking chances is critical to expanding knowledge. My advice is to experiment, fail fast, fail often but not constantly and don’t fail twice doing something the same way.
- There are many paths to defensiveness, many of which we have already explored. One of the reasons defensiveness is bad is that when you become defensive communication becomes difficult. As soon as you becomes defensive, barriers are erected which makes it difficult to listen, accept and process data that is at odds with your point of view. Frankly, being seen to be defensive will chase those away who have different points of view, which can only serve to reinforce the original point of view which creates barriers between ideas. A self-reinforcing cycle that can’t have a good ultimate outcome.
“BEEN THERE DONETHAT”
- If I had a nickel for every time I heard the expression “been there, done that” I would be a rich man (or at least on the way). A beginner does not make the mistake of assuming that since an idea has been tried in the past that it can’t or won’t work now. As we have noted before, the world is a dynamic place and circumstances change and therefore when problem-solving all possibilities should be on the table. Consider problem solving techniques that evaluate alternatives as quickly as possible; prototyping and experimentation (spikes and tracers in agile quarters) are tools to quickly evaluate solutions.
- Constraints are an integral part of life, the universe and projects. Most of us have been educated to discover the constraints we are operating under and deal with them. The constraints we have been taught to find and therefore accept as real can blind us from possibilities in a manner similar to the filtered vision that expertise can bring to the table. The beginner does not begin with a set of preconceived constraints and “shoulds”. At the very least, a beginner will question preconceptions of the world around them. Note: Not all preconceptions are bad. For example the preconception that holding a meeting while driving in traffic is generally not good idea is probably not worth spending a lot of time questioning or testing. In the business world it is easy for processes to pick up additional steps that were added for a specific purpose or to ensure a specific incident does not happen again — which may no longer be applicable or that the solution is overkill. If a step does not make sense just accepting that you “should” do it just because the process says so is generally not a great answer. I am not suggesting that the beginner’s mind is a “get out of jail free card” for civil disobedience but rather that the status quo is generally not the most efficient solution and pushing to reinvigorate it through change is a better answer.
There many ways to enhance the beginner’s mind so that you unlock creativity and innovation. A strategy is to take positions diametrically opposed to the constraints we just discussed. For example, to embrace the beginner’s mind an expert could quit being defensive of new ideas while still capitalizing on the knowledge and wisdom gathered while becoming an expert. Bottom-line, experts would need to resist developing barriers and being defensive when confronted by new ideas. Other mechanisms to accelerate embracing the beginner’s mind include:
- The beginner’s mind sees the possibilities in every situation because it is open. The goal of openness is to help ignore the constraints of what has been done in the past or just settling on the solutions our area of expertise makes us comfortable with. I suggest investigating a new concept, taking a class on calligraphy (a nod to Steve Jobs) or just reading a book on topic outside of your comfort zone to help open your mind. Openness is just as much a learned behavior as is the fear of failure or defensiveness.
Become a Learner
- One of the benefits of a beginner’s mind is that it is open to continuous learning. Much has been written about the need for continuous learning and training in IT (in reality this true for any profession). There really should be no debate of whether it is the responsibility of the organization or the individual to continually enrich or reinvent themselves (the same can be said about organizations — just ask Kodak); you are in control of your own life and career. In order to actively enrich your horizons, you need to be actively learning at all times which requires an open and questioning mind. Time, success and expertise can contribute to hardening of filters which slow learning but only if you them. I am not suggesting you should be a failure, with no expertise and that you die young; rather, I am suggesting that you recognize that the filters we erect to focus our attention can lead to myopia which reduces the possibility of innovation and growth. While being a lifetime learner is not an immunization for career tragedy, it can reduce the risk and transition time if and when career shocks occur (it will also make you more fun to talk to at parties).
- It is easy to see boundaries all around us — boundaries between people, boundaries between teams, boundaries between processes, boundaries between applications and boundaries between organizations just to name a few. By definition boundaries are barriers. It is easy to let experience and fear cause us to see a barrier as insurmountable and retreat into more comfortable territory. A beginner does not see boundaries as insurmountable obstacles but rather new territory and ideas to explore.
- Simply put a beginner looks for a way to succeed, rather than a reason an idea won’t work. My experience has been that it is far easier for someone to see how a change can’t work than it is to see how it can work.
The concept of the beginner’s mind provides a framework to consider why some people and organizations have an easier time embracing new ideas and why they innovate serially. Each step away from the joy of change and experimentation towards constraints and deterministic solutions creates barriers between people, ideas and new solutions which generate a risk of systemic failure. Become a beginner again. Take a class on a topic you have always been interested in but haven’t done anything about. Relish the experience of being excited about learning, not being the expert and asking the stupid questions as you explore the boundaries of the topic. The experience and feelings from this simple act can act as a template that you can translate into your day-to-day world to liberate the beginner’s mind and the potential for innovation and creativity lurking within.