Author: Arif Mahmud, Project Officer – University of Portsmouth 

Creativity and innovation are words that are used frequently throughout higher education. This cannot only be directed towards students and their approaches to learning and career prospects but also towards staff and their approaches to pedagogy and practices. Innovation has been described as fun, creative, diverse, collaborative and intuitive (Reimers-Hild & King, 2009), and a part of this process and ‘fuel for innovation’ is the way we take risks and view failures. If something is not working, we should learn from it, and then adapt and try again. These are some of the fundamental principles of Dweck’s Mindsets Theory (for a primer on Dweck’s Mindset Theory see Mahmud, 2017) and the core message of the Changing Mindset project.

Research has suggested that mindsets powerfully shape how creative, and creatively persistent, we can be in the face of challenges (Dhilwayo & Vuuren, 2007; Neneh, 2012). From these studies, a growth mindset toward creativity was found to be associated with higher feelings of creative capability, such as having the belief of developing new ideas, a widespread imagination, and a willing outlook to develop on the ideas of others. Subsequently, in terms of innovation, a fixed mindset can be a creativity killer. If students, lecturers, employees believe that their existing skill set makes them valuable or that they have achieved only because of who they are instead of what they can become, they fail to recognise the infinite power of continuous learning. This shortfall can have negative consequences for innovation, which most often is characterised as a process by which incremental improvements occur slowly and methodically with many mistakes and setbacks. A fixed mindset is problematic because a person is wary of making mistakes. Moreover, when it comes to innovation, companies with an ‘edge’ not only possess but seek growth mindsets. This edge and these companies promote collaboration and success across the organisation and importantly across communities.

One of the preliminary findings of this Changing Mindsets project (which are set to be released in line with the Changing Mindsets Conference) is that a fixed mindset is linked to stereotypical thoughts and beliefs, and incongruent with overcoming biases and creating inclusion. This finding came about from the changing mindsets intervention focus on addressing unconscious bias and habit-breaking techniques.

Unconscious thinking play a central role in restraining and confining our ability to think and respond flexibly and adaptively, whether it be in relation to people, or with regards to thinking, problem-solving, reasoning, evaluating, and creating (Blair, 2002; Devine et al., 2012; ). Habits are antagonistic to creativity and innovation and our mental habits are stored in our unconscious thinking system. Unconscious bias happens when we make quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without realising.  The problem is that when unconscious bias is against certain characteristics, it can be deemed discriminatory. Biases can be based on skin colour, gender, age, height, weight, introversion versus extroversion, marital and parental status, disability status, foreign accents, where someone went to college, and more, and are all influenced by a number of factors including our personal experiences, background and environmental conditions.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that unconscious bias may influence teacher evaluations (Mengel, Sauermann, and Zölitz, 2017; MacNell, Driscoll and Hunt, 2015; Young, Rush, & Shaw, 2009; Centra & Gaubatz, 2000; Miller and Chamberlin, 2000) in addition to under-represented students in higher education (Gonzales, Blanton, & Williams, 2002; Schmader & Johns, 2003; Croizet & Claire, 1998; Good, Aronson, & Harder, 2008; Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000;). In the workplace and at universities alike, unconscious bias may have an impact on recruitment, mentoring, promotions and academic achievement if action isn’t taken to recognise the signs and attempt to eliminate it from decisions concerning students and employees (Beattie, Geoffrey and Johnson, 2012).

The Changing Mindset project presented numerous evidence-based habit breaking techniques to try and address the negative unconscious thinking including (but not limited to) strategies such as stereotype replacement, counter-stereotype imaging, individuating (rather than generalising), perspective-taking and increasing opportunities for engagement  (Devine et al., 2012).

Organisational agendas that rely on change, adaptability, agility, and innovation require consideration of the role mindsets and unconscious thinking plays in limiting the range of creativity and flexibility. One reason that diverse, inclusive companies and institutions are better in their problem-solving and are adaptable to the changing climate is because they can profit from a broader range of perspectives and skills – they are less constrained and fixed in their thinking. The real challenge for creating an agile innovative organisational culture lies in fostering the same kind of growth mindset and collective-level diversity of thinking, but at the level of the single individual. Getting agility, adaptability, and innovation into the current and future work force lies in developing individuals who have the understanding and adaptive thinking skills to develop a growth mindset and think outside the box of unconscious thinking habits.


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Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.


Mindsets, bias and innovation: A Changing Mindsets approach
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