In 1954, before Sir Roger Bannister became the first man in recorded history to run a mile in under four minutes, most people thought it was impossible. Bannister's record was short lived. Just 46 days later, rival John Landy beat his time. Many attribute Landy's success to the newfound belief that it could actually be done. In other words, what we feel we can influence impacts what we actually do influence.
While this concept is often applied to individual goals -- encouraging people to visualize their success -- what’s given less attention is how it plays out on a larger scale; how unchallenged mindsets shape entire organizations, industries and cultures.
There are examples throughout history:
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
Warner Brothers would eventually become the first studio to release a talking picture, but only after a prolonged struggle between Sam and Harry Warner. Sam Warner, the co-head of production, was the first to see the value of talking pictures. In 1925, he began to urge his brother, the president of the studio, to include sound in their pictures. Harry Warner agreed -- but only if it was limited to background music -- saying “who the hell want to hear actors talk? The music -- that’s the big plus about this.”
After their first picture with synchronized music lost money, Harry Warner refused to greenlight any more. But by 1927, faced with mounting losses, other studios’ interest in sound, and the prospect of losing his brother to a rival company -- Harry Warner finally relented and The Jazz Singer dramatically reversed their fortunes. If Harry Warner had held fast to his initial belief, what would have become of the Warner Brothers classics we know today?
“There is no reason anyone would need a computer in their home.”
Ken Olson, founder and chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), spoke this infamous line in 1977. Many cite this quote as evidence of a mindset that led to the company’s downfall, delaying Digital’s entrance into the personal PC market and ceding market share to IBM. Olson long argued that the quote was taken out of context -- that he’d been talking about large, centralized computers that would run all aspects of home automation, and not the desktop PCs whose value he says was evident. However, in a world where technology plays a major role in our daily lives, it appears that history is not on Olson’s side.
“Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t gotten through college yet.”
Around the same time as the example above (late 1970s), two engineers were pitching their version of a personal computer in California. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak reportedly took early versions of an Apple computer to Atari and Hewlett-Packard, who famously passed, citing the duo’s youth and inexperience. Imagine if either of those companies had been able to see beyond their mindsets about youth and inexperience and had taken a chance on two energetic, idealistic entrepreneurs. Would Atari or HP be in the position Apple is today?
“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.”
For the better part of a century -- from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 -- American women fought for the right to vote. President Grover Cleveland was among the more influential men of this era, serving two terms in office. While this quote appeared in 1905, after his second term in office, it is a mindset that certainly influenced his policies, and which held sway with the lawmakers of his day.
Today, with women being cited as a key demographic in the upcoming presidential election, it is clear that women do indeed want a voice in their government. How would history have been different if Cleveland had challenged his mindset?
As a leader, you hold enormous influence over your organization, its employees and the strategies pursued. Your ideas, biases and patterns of thought have a very real impact on business outcomes, both positively and negatively. By continually challenging your mindsets, you can determine which mindsets are stumbling blocks and which are accelerators.
Peter Senge first popularized the idea that mindsets -- or, as Senge terms them, “mental models” -- can play a key role in shaping organizations. The questions below, which I’ve adapted from his work, are a good starting point for anyone seeking to challenge their mindset. When faced with an issue or decision, ask yourself:
- What mindsets, experiences and unchallenged conclusions do I carry that might affect how I see this issue?
- What might this issue look like from someone else’s point of view? Customers? Stakeholders? Senior Executives? Employees?
- How is my mindset impacting my behavior and the behavior of others in my organization?
- What prevents me from expanding my perspective?