Case Study: Transforming a Survival Mindset to a Thrive Mindset

Case Study: Transforming a Survival Mindset to a Thrive Mindset

In a time of exceptionally scarce resources, it may seem counterintuitive for leaders to heed advice to “think big” rather than to follow their instincts to circle the proverbial wagons and concentrate on keeping the operation running day to day. Yet this is exactly the right time to create as expansive a “big picture” as possible, to focus on the value that the organization provides, and the impact it has. Challenging times like those we are experiencing now provide a great opportunity for leaders to take a look at what their organizations do, why they do it, and how, and to make conscious choices about what they want for the future.

By creating an expansive “big picture,” leaders allow for the possibility that the organization will achieve it: everyone is focused on ways to make that outcome a reality in spite of the immediate constraints. Given this “thrive” mindset, chances are very good that the vision will be achieved, though perhaps not in the short-run. On the other hand, when leaders choose to concentrate narrowly on how to keep the doors open, they and their stakeholders ignore opportunities that present themselves because no one is looking for them: they are too busy looking for things NOT to do. As a result, the organization’s impact is seriously diminished, and customers, employees, and other stakeholders pay an unnecessarily high price for leaders who choose the “survival” mindset.

The key to successfully overcoming the challenges facing organizations is the mindset with which leaders approach the task. The following case study illustrates the dramatic difference between a “thrive” mentality and a “survival” mindset.

In early 2009 I conducted a strategy formulation session for the board members of a non-profit organization that provides shelter and services for women who have been victims of domestic violence. The economic environment looked very grim, especially for organizations that rely heavily on private donors and government grants for funding. The question posed to me by the group was this: “How do we keep the lights on this year given the recession’s likely negative effect on the economy?” Unwittingly, they were asking the wrong question, which meant the answers would not serve them well. So we changed the question.

Using an appreciative inquiry process, we took a step back to remember and identify the things the agency had done well, the values it embodied, the vision to which it aspired, and the impact of its work on clients and the community. Participants recalled their personal dreams for the organization and the outcomes they hoped to achieve when they first joined the organization. Those conversations resulted in a composite of best experiences, strengths, and the conditions necessary for success.

Using that information as a foundation, the board members created a shared vision of the agency’s desired future. They figuratively painted an expansive picture of what that vision would look like, going well beyond what they previously had envisioned and focusing on the impact the agency would have on clients and the community. Casting aside their original question about how to keep the lights on, they focused instead on ways to empower women to live safe, non-violent lives with their children. The resulting range of possibilities addressed the expansive picture of a thriving agency rather than the more constrictive issue of survival. Board members left the session feeling exhilarated about the possibilities, and importantly, confident that the compelling picture they had created would inspire individual and institutional donors, staff, volunteers, and the community to support their cause.

What changed during the course of that session? Certainly not the external environment! It was the shift in mindset of the session participants, from one of survival to one of thriving. By asking questions about how to achieve this new, expansive picture, they found answers that enabled them to imagine a future for the agency that exceeded anything they previously had envisioned. Necessarily, the issue of how to keep the lights was addressed in this vision - but it was not the centerpiece. As a result, people’s creativity and innovativeness soared. Though this group of leaders had their work cut out for them due to external constraints, they left the session energized by the positive impact their agency could have and inspired to bring it to fruition.

This type of transformation doesn’t require a rocket scientist. It does require leaders to act on the counterintuitive belief that creating and working toward an expansive “big picture” in tough times is critical for leaders who want their organizations to thrive rather than merely to survive.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.

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