Agile Day Chicago 2015 – Experimentation Mindset, Doc Norton

One of the sessions that I attended at DevJam‘s Agile Day Chicago was Doc Norton’s (@DocOnDev) session on the Experimentation Mindset.

In the session, Doc covered the differences between having a Growth Mindset vs. a Fixed Mindset, and the differences between an Implementation Mindset and a Experimentation Mindset.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

Doc shared the findings of an experiment that Carol Dweck conducted with a group of students entering the 7th grade.

The students were divided up into two groups (Group A and Group B), and all students were given the same test early in the year that included topics they would learn later in the year; in other words, it was a stretch and a challenge for them, but not impossible.

When the tests were scored and handed back, one group of students received the feedback “You worked really hard on this” (Group A) and the other group received the feedback “You must be really smart” (Group B).

The students in Group A were more enthusiastic, hard-working and persistent learners. They found that students from the first group were more motivated to learn and exert effort, and outperformed those with a fixed mindset. When they had difficulty in a subject, they made more constructive, mastery-oriented explanations – rather than just saying, “I’m not smart enough,” or “I just can’t do math,” they explained their difficulty as due to lack of effort or inadequate strategy. And they responded with more positive effort-based strategies to work harder and spend more time on the subject instead of giving up.

When students have a growth mindset, they understand that intelligence can be developed. Students focus on improvement instead of worrying how smart they are.

According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset).

Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset).

Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure.

Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure.

Implementation vs. Experimentation Mindset

Doc also discussed the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition – Novice, Advance Beginner, Competent, Proficient, Expert

Most of us think we’re Expert, but really we stay at Proficient. Below are the Dreyfus model levels and key characterics.

  • Novice :: rigid adherence to taught rules or plans, no exercise of discretionary judgment
  • Advanced beginner :: limited “situational perception”, all aspects of work treated separately with equal importance
  • Competent :: “coping with crowdedness” (multiple activities, accumulation of information), some perception of actions in relation to goals, deliberate planning, formulates routines
  • Proficient :: holistic view of situation, prioritizes importance of aspects, “perceives deviations from the normal pattern”, employs maxims for guidance, with meanings that adapt to the situation at hand.
  • Expert :: transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims, “intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding”, has “vision of what is possible”, uses “analytical approaches” in new situations or in case of problems

With the Implementation Mindset (where the highest level is Proficient), one is more focused on “getting it right, doing an A+ job” vs an Experimentation Mindset, where one is focused on “exploring different ways.”

Doc then shared a story of a job where he sold magazine subscriptions over the phone. Salespeople were ranked based on the number of sales that they made, they were also rated on how well they followed the call script.

Doc became extremely proficient at following the call script, but he wasn’t raising in the sales rankings. So he began to experiment, and he found ways to have the conversation that increased his sales. He shot to the top of the sales list, however, when he was called into his boss’s office for his eight week review, expecting a raise, he was penalized for going “off script.” Doc didn’t stay with that company long.

Final Thoughts

Doc then ended with some final thoughts regarding the term, Best Practices. His viewpoint is that the concept of “best practices” creates artificial boundaries for learning, i.e. can’t do better than the best, do it “right,” follow the script and doing the thing is the goal.

He suggested that we change the language to “leading practices” because best practices are only leading practices until someone experiments and finds a better way. If we’re not achieving the outcomes that we’d like, let’s not only look at the actions we’re taking, but also look at the assumptions that we have that are generating those actions. Challenge assumptions!

At the end of the session, someone in the audience asked what they could do to take action at their company, and Doc suggested the following:

  1. Know your purpose; challenge assumptions
  2. Make failure acceptable – “Failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford
  3. Think big and start small
  4. Be intolerant of mediocrity
  5. Keep experimenting

Below is the full slideshow (link to original site):

Courtesy Doc Norton, Agile Day Chicago 2015 and DevJam.

References ::

  • The Science: The Growth Mindset (link)
  • Wikipedia: Carol Dweck (link)
  • Wikipedia: Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (link)


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