Building Growth Mindset Into A Culture of Continuous Transformation

James Hooks
May 1 · 12 min read

Did you know Optimus Prime used to be a gorilla?

Leadership is monkey business

Transformers was the pinnacle franchise of the 1980s. A popular cartoon, a comic by Marvel, and a toyline that flew off the shelves; the series about space robots in disguise was all about change. In 1986, the first feature film killed off all the main characters, including Optimus Prime, the heroic leader of the Autobots who transformed into a semi truck, for a new generation of characters (read: toys). In 1989, they introduced Pretenders, robots in disguise as humans. In 1996, Beast Wars: Transformers launched, and Hasbro (the makers of the robots in disguise) made Optimus Prime into a gorilla, fighting a war on prehistoric Earth against oversized spiders, a scorpion/cobra hybrid, and a British Canadian purple T-Rex.

The series won an Emmy.

Despite the admittedly wonky premise of space robots from another planet going to the past to save the future of humanity, the cartoon was a wonderful science fiction adventure; the series actually redefined and reinvigorated the Transformers from a dead in the water repaint toyline into an adaptable franchise willing to try new things for new audiences (I like to think I helped a little bit as a kid). Hasbro and Takara realized that there is a new set of kids every 3–5 years experiencing the robots in disguise for the first time, so it needed to change the experience for it not to become stale. So Optimus Prime (in actuality, Prime’s descendent Optimus Primal) became a gorilla who said that’s just Prime at every minor setback, then a space gorilla on a flying surfboard, then a futuristic space firetruck, and eventually the star of a live action franchise that has grossed over $4 billion at the box office.

Not bad for a series that was effectively cancelled 30 years ago.

It would be cheesy, and obvious, and true, that the Transformers franchise was based all around change. The learnings that Hasbro gained from looking at how to adapt a growth mindset into the toyline allowed it to continue to be successful 35 years after its launch. The brand is adaptable; it can look different five years later but still hold the same DNA that makes it uniquely the brand; and it has made transformation a part of its day to day practice.

So should we.

Goat yoga < aerial yoga < truck yoga

Much like the first time transforming a toy from truck to robot, the first time hearing about Growth Mindset™ might mean needing an instruction manual. Before we dig into how we adapt it into our culture, let’s first go on a journey of what growth mindset is and how that impacts our teams.

Mindset as an organizational learning concept was popularized in 2007 by Harvard professor Carol Dweck. Our minds constantly monitor the events that occur in our lives and interpret the meaning of the things that are happening. Mindset is what dictates how we perform the tracking of these situations and how we react to what takes place. There are two main ideas around mindset: growth mindset and fixed mindset.

Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that they are what they are. They see their intelligence, athleticism, creative ability, or environment as being fixed, and don’t think they can be changed in any meaningful way. They might believe there to be a sort of standard against which their, and everyone else’s, abilities or surroundings or processes are measured, and that success is an affirmation that their traits are at a satisfactory level.

On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and input from others. They understand that situations are not fixed, and recognize that people may naturally have certain talents but that anyone can learn and grow in any area. That’s not to say that they believe anyone could be an NFL star or operatic singer or an actual robot in disguise; however, they do feel anyone who can dedicate themselves to improvement can strengthen and develop their abilities significantly, and encourage this mindset in others.

What might a fixed mindset versus growth mindset look like? Let’s use the prototypical People Manager as an example:

  • People Manager A: Displays bias and favoritism towards certain members of his team. Doesn’t work to grow team’s capabilities or show care. Pulse scores are low, but that’s okay; there is some reason why they are low, but it’s not due to his influence as a leader. He does not see opportunity for improvement and otherwise rejects change, particularly during major shifts in team dynamics or re-orgs. May lack confidence but doesn’t allow himself to be vulnerable. Probably can’t even spell “trust”, unless it is spelled “ego.”
  • People Manager B: Not only does she accept change but she has worked with her team to make change part of the team’s norms. If Pulse scores are strong, well, they can be even better, and she will bring her team in to develop a plan for how to improve things. She actively works to grow and develop her team through regular coaching, team development activities, and setting clear expectations. She encourages her team to experiment, take risks, and try new things, even if it leads to failure, because failure is an option.

When a People Manager displays either a fixed or growth mindset, that can have an effect on the teams they support. How do different mindsets look in a collaborative environment?

  • Team-A: This team works with an orientation toward a fixed mindset and may find themselves handicapped by internal pressure to perform, reduced attentional resources to address mistakes, weaker learning, avoidance of challenging experiences, and increased vulnerability to setbacks.
  • Team-B: This team strongly endorses growth mindset beliefs, and are thus less likely to disengage from their career goals. They are better able to openly express disagreements, accept feedback from one another, increase their confidence over trials, and end up setting more challenging goals for themselves in the long run. Essentially, they are at the performing stage of Tuckman’s model of team development, and things are going exceedingly well.

Put simply: a fixed mindset believes in fixed traits and abilities and maintaining the status quo. A growth mindset believes in the potential for substantial growth — personally, professionally, and organizationally.

On a micro level, having both a manager and team aligned on having a growth mindset culture can help to create greater effectiveness, more trust, and increased innovations. On a macro level, an organization that has a growth mindset culture can withstand external media pressure, navigate through complicated re-orgs, and develop roadmaps that create long-term impact for both the business internally and for the communities that the business relies on externally.

Sound familiar?

At Facebook, we are incredibly resilient. We have weathered many media storms, undergone massive reorganizations, and dealt with unexpected changes and events that would have pushed less-adaptable organizations to the brink. Still, we should be incredibly mindful and thoughtful of what it takes for effective change management, especially as we continue to grow and scale our teams, new managers being to support complex teams, and we embark on our journey to increased focus on privacy and integrity efforts.

So why is all of this important to a company as complex as Facebook? What does this mean for the engineer or the product manager or the talent partner focus on their day-to-day impact?

  • Greater change agility: Growth mindset helps people stay continually adaptive, rather than adaptive solely for specific change events. To be change agile, we must first recognize that change is the default. We must embrace new challenges as opportunities, not as threats to traditional ways of working.
  • Strong people value proposition: Teams that effectively deliver on their people value proposition can decrease annual employee turnover by just under 70% and increase new hire commitment by nearly 30%. Growth mindset is critical in this regard because it helps people see their own potential. Instead of focusing on shortcomings, we can focus on the progress made and target areas for improvement, creating stronger engagement in the long run.
  • Innovation and learning: At its core, growth mindset helps people think and perform in new, untested ways. It champions experimentation, even if it leads to failure, because experimentation is how teams have always arrived at innovation. By creating a culture where failure is an option, leaders give their teams permission to take risks that could yield outsized gains. This is important because sticking to what’s worked in the past won’t always work in the future.

Building growth mindset into the way we work every day isn’t easy, especially when we do not address the value proposition of change agility. We may hear from organizational leaders that they want to prepare to make a major change that they anticipate a transformation is coming, so they want to brace for it before the storm actually hits. That solution is indeed a smart one, but it solves for the wrong problem.

We shouldn’t be preparing for specific change events, but rather continuous transformation.

Much like learning is not an event but a journey, how understanding the people experience is much different than understanding how people act situationally, we should be change agile not just in our mindsets but in the way that we work, the way we collaborate, and the way we build our products and programs.

If change was as cute as Bumbeblee, everyone would do it all the time.

Change isn’t always pretty. Let’s take a look at one of the most popular of Transformers as an example: Bumblebee. His appeal is obvious: the little yellow robot that turns into a VW Bug is not just cute; he’s vulnerable; he’s playful; he speaks through the radio and mimics your favorite songs. He’s the equivalent of a metal space puppy that fights bad guys.

There was a nearly 20-year period between the early-1990s and mid-aughts where Hasbro didn’t use the character Bumblebee, which may seem weird for a character who just had a movie named after him. However, they had been so neglectful of the Bumblebee trademark, they lost it. Bumblebee could not exist as a character. There were no Bumblebee toys. There was no cartoon with Bumblebee as Prime’s scout and sidekick. Not even Beast Wars could have a bumblebee named Bumblebee; they instead had a wasp named Waspinator.

They eventually reclaimed the trademark, and now you cannot swing a bat in the action figure aisle of Target without hitting a Bumblebee figure of some shape or size, but failing to recognize the potential in the character during a tumultuous period of the franchise certainly cost someone their job in the pre-smartphone era.

The appeal of cultivating a growth mindset culture may seem as obvious as retaining the trademark to your franchise’s number one or two character. In times of change, that can be difficult. Sure, we want vulnerable but authentic and strong leadership that speaks clearly at all levels to help us navigate ambiguity. Yet finding the many places where you may hold growth or fixed mindsets about your abilities is a life journey on its own; how can you possibly shift the collective mindset across an organization of thousands? How can you ensure that you are becoming advocates of transformation when it seems change, ambiguity, and volatility surround us?

Data suggests that 86% of organizations are in a transformational state. However, only 37% of transformation efforts are deemed successful. This is partially because we undervalue the importance of growth mindset culture and overvalue output (ship it, regardless of quality or consequence), which can lead people to have a fixed mindset when thinking about the work we do. Should a major event arise, fixed mindsets won’t be of much help. So we must employ tools to innovate and execute faster, which we cannot do if we don’t have a culture that ensures we are successful in making this happen.

What does a culture of continuous transformation look like?

It looks like Shia LaBeouf smiling. A rare but welcome sight.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, culture is shaped by priorities, habits, and systems. If we want growth mindset to happen, we must create the conditions for it and modify them as we learn what works and what doesn’t. These conditions differ depending on where we are in the evolution, moving from awareness to adoption to advocacy of growth mindset. This work is iterative, data-informed, and ongoing. It also starts with us individually.

From day one, Facebook employees are told that This Is Now Your Company. That sense of ownership comes not just from a sense of pride in the products we build, owning the stages of the programs we are collaborating on, or picking up after ourselves so we aren’t the enemies of the Slobs@ group. This also means creating the conditions for growth and encouraging a mindset of continuous transformation in the work that we do and the conversations we have.

In my areas of influence, I plan on focusing activities in several areas:

  • Treat learning as an expectation rather than an option, and build experiences rather than events. Understand the continuous growth and development of team performance and individual careers. Continue listening to and mentoring those who hunger to learn. Ensure incremental and continuous improvement of my program/product areas, iterating throughout and bringing thought partners in at every stage of the program to ensure inclusive ideas. Fearlessly share what I know, and listen carefully to the things I don’t.
  • Take a Learning Experience Design approach to building, scaling, and executing on learning strategies. Have growth mindset built into the DNA of any learning program, so that the learning experience isn’t just about tactical actions, but actionable influence.
  • Help build management and leadership experiences that are thoughtful, immersive, and highly suggestive to influence consistency in the people journey experience. Work with leaders become more accountable for helping others grow and develop beyond their current role, and address accountability for their reports.
  • Focus on community building. I currently participate in a panel on culture for UX Research, am a member of the culture committee, and am part of the Level Up Steering Committee. But what can I be doing to assist, educate, and support communities externally so that we not just create social value, but build bridges to close the gap on opportunity for those in need?
  • Move the conversation of diversity and inclusion beyond just a verb or buzzword to making belonging and empowerment a practice that we live and breathe everyday.
  • Embrace the new, be open to new challenges, having difficult conversations, provide radical candor, be curious, dream big, and challenge the status quo.
  • Show care for everyone. Even when — especially when — I disagree with them.
Til all are one.

If I told you ten years ago that a previously unpublished author named James Roberts pitched an idea to Hasbro and its publishing partner IDW for a Transformers series that would be Community meets Lost in Space meets Arrested Development, with a focus on strong female characters and cleverly championing LGBTQIA+ issues, you’d think I was lying or playing the worst game of mad libs in existence.

Not only was the series pitched, it was published. Hasbro approved the series and Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye/Lost Light was in print for fourteen volumes covering 80+ comics from 2012–2018.

The series, like Beast Wars before it, was critically acclaimed and won several awards.

We don’t typically think about a franchise about robots nominally made for kids to have covered such diverse and important areas, both from a storytelling POV and an organizational change perspective. Yet Transformers has taught many lessons about adaptability, challenging assumptions, and being open to change and innovation. It has become the archetype for having a growth mindset and cultivating continuous transformation. It is, in sum, more than meets the eye.

And so are we.

It doesn’t matter if we are an engineer, a product manager, or a robot space raptor that quotes Shakespeare. How we build our products is important. How we approach the problems we are looking to solve is critical. How we encourage each other to grow, to learn, to do something new and challenging and better than before can be just as critical as the work we do day-to-day. We have a responsibility to craft a narrative that inspires each other to be better today than we were yesterday. It is my hope that we continue to have conversations about what tomorrow may bring, and the work we do to ensure it happens. The more we create awareness to align our priorities, habits, and systems to growth behaviors, the more we will be able to tackle our work’s important challenges head-on.

The worst we can do is fail.

The best we can do is learn from that failure.

And, well, that’s just Prime.

James Hooks

Written by

Leadership Philosopher and Learning Designer @Airbnb. Alum @Facebook @Twitter @PeopleLab. Spin fan, dog dad, robot in disguise.

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