Thought Leadership, Women In Tech

What’s wrong with the growth mindset? Introducing the discovery mindset.

People like Satya Nadella talk about a ‘growth mindset’ often. So, as a former Microsoft MVP for almost ten years before I handed the Award back, I used to be in many conversations where ‘growth mindset’ was the topic of conversation; the latest kool-aid. In a way, it’s quite a forgiving way of working. When someone makes a mistake, then it is chalked up to the ‘growth mindset’ and the idea is that person moves on from the mistake and everyone forgets about it. Sounds cozy, right? That’s the ‘easy’ growth mindset, and it misses out the bigger meaning. Here’s a good article on it from HBR, which describes the growth mindset as ‘Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset’. However, that seems to have been missed in discussions of the growth mindset, so this post is about dialing up an aspect of the growth mindset that seems to have got missed somewhere.

So what’s wrong with the ‘growth mindset’? The reality is, people do not always learn from the ‘growth mindset’. It is a ‘get out of jail’ card, for those of you who play Monopoly. It’s the easy way out to get out of bad behaviour, and repeating it; it also pushes the onus on everyone else to forgive. Mistakes are repeated, people blame the ‘growth mindset’ again, and it becomes a talisman to fend off blame. In other words, they do not learn from the mistake, and use the magic phrase ‘growth mindset’ as an excuse to repeat the mistake. Since people’s memories are short, it does not get picked up.

People do not always learn from the ‘growth mindset’. It can become an excuse which prevents growth rather than promoting it. We need a ‘discovery mindset’ before we can have a growth mindset.


Using ‘growth mindset’ as an excuse, people do not move forward to applying what they have learned. Instead, they get stuck in a growth mindset phase where they are using ‘growth’ as an excuse, but they do not actually grow.

Moving forward: the Discovery Mindset

How do you move forward? The only way to really commit to getting past a ‘growth mindset’ is to have an honest ‘discovery’ mindset. This involves a number of strands:

Be honest about identifying what you are good at

Work to know yourself first and be honest about identifying what you are good at. It’s ok to say that you are good at something to yourself. Write it down, and you can brag about it to yourself. I spent time logging my activities so I can see better, over time, what customers ask from me and I work to make sure that I can deliver what they expect.

Work to identify how others perceive you

Work out what you are bad at, or what others perceive you to be bad at. This can also mean an examination of how you come across to people When I was a Non-Executive Director on the PASS Board for four years, I received one piece of feedback that I was ‘plodding’. For me, I could not understand why some people weren’t as interested in the detail as I am. I recognize now that it can be a strength in some situations, but not in others. I can do detail to the nth degree and, again, it’s about working out when to stop. So, I thought about developing my discovery mindset to identify better what other people needed from me.

Work out which skills will complement you

Work out what skills you lack . I will keep learning until I die. Fact. I just need to be more careful and directed about what I need to learn. CEOs don’t code, for example; they get someone to do it for them. So, as tempting as it might be to spend days coding, I have to find project and work where I really add a distinctive value rather than something that people with Google and a laptop could have nailed together. For example, I saved one customer over £1m a year licence fees recently by re-architecting their technical estate in the cloud. I could have coded it myself, but didn’t; someone else can do that, and I can move on to save another customer millions of pounds in licence fees. That’s my value-add; I like to gamify saving clients money.

Work out what should really delegate and let it go

It’s harder to let go of ‘work but fun’ activities. We all have guilty secret tasks which are fun but do not contribute to provide maximum value from the time spend. My guilty secret is Canva. I could spend hours making pictures. One of my team told me to stop it because I wasn’t as good as it as I thought; I admire her honesty and she was right. So now she gets to do the fun Canva work and I do actual real work that produces maximum value for my company, Data Relish.

Do I miss the Canva days? Yes. But I find it more fulfilling to have an impact that is unique.

My own Discovery Mindset and how it helped me to grow

I wonder from time-to-time whether often people at Microsoft used ‘growth mindset’ to excuse the fact that some of the team there didn’t handle my complaints properly or in a timely way, and didn’t refer me to other courses of resolution such as their Ethics Board or their anonymous complaints route. I only learned about this afterwards in an email I was inadvertently copied on after I left the MVP Program because it was not mentioned to me as an opportunity to find some reconciliation, and I took that to mean that they no longer wanted me on the MVP Program since my contributions (or myself, for that fact) were no longer valued. It was never clear to me if they recognized the issue or not, but the uncomfortable truth is that they would not have treated my complaints so lightly if I was valued. Being exposed to a rape joke really broke me, and I don’t think that the technical community really understand the hurt that this caused to me, or how the delays and silence made me feel dismissed again and again; I was not putting myself through that. For what it is worth, I will use my voice, what I am good at, to make sure that others are heard in the future. And I owe that to myself, too.

As part of my discovery mindset, I have come to learn that some people just don’t want to hear it and they will diminish me; but I will not stop trying to shine my light because of you. As part of the discovery mindset, you can’t grow when mistakes are not admitted to yourself or other people. That’s a hard thing to do, but the mark of a leader is not to take the easy path.

I hope that you enjoyed reading, too, and I am interested in your thoughts on the discovery mindset. Please feel free to comment below.

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