Adopt a Beginner’s Mindset to Lead Your Brand Turnaround

Three ways to help begin a pivot, turnaround or change

The Expert might find the door to change, but the Beginner must walk through it.

If your brand faces the very real, existential struggle of survival in an increasingly competitive world, it’s only logical to lean on your expertise and experiences in order to answer the one singular question that’s going to turn things around and get you back to growth. You know the question, everyone in your organization knows the question (and possibly the answer), it’s easy, really, it’s ………………

That’s just the trouble.

There is no singular question and singular solution that’s staring you in the face or hidden in reams of research when it comes to brand turnaround or innovation. If that were the case, the iPhone would never have been developed — instead, we would have had bigger and bigger Blackberry-type phones with more and more keys until they started to blend size, shape and functionality with notebook computers. The evidence pointed to people really liking the keys of the Blackberry yet needing more functionality. The obvious solution would have been more keys that do more stuff.

This is the difference between the Expert’s Mindset and the Beginner’s Mindset.

The term Beginner’s Mindset refers to Zen teaching “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level — just as a beginner in that subject would.” The Buddhist scholar Shunryu Suzuki summarizes this in a very fridge-magnet-friendly, yet powerful way,

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

The opposite of the Beginner’s Mindset is the Expert’s Mindset, which Diana Kander refers to as providing overconfidence in past skills, experience or ideas, and not allowing evidence from the current and emerging signals to influence your thinking. To illustrate the false sense of security that comes from the Expert’s Mindset, consider that many organizations have an 80% failure rate on innovation projects yet 100% expectation for success in their current innovation, using the exact same methodologies they have always used.

So, how should your team first behave when faced with critical, turnaround decisions that impact growth? We believe adopting the Beginner’s Mindset at the onset offers marketers at least three ways to help achieve a successful turnaround.

  1. The Beginner’s Mindset starts with audience need first. From a Beginner’s POV, you start with their end result — the audience’s outcome — which your brand, product or service delivers. You are open and eager to their goals. The beginner first asks what your audience, fans, customers want to achieve and then figures out whether your brand will solve this. They don’t start with the product, because this creates a bias in the conventional thinking of why the product was developed in the first place (e.g., starting with the product retains too much of the “expert”).
  2. The Beginner’s Mindset helps you move beyond conventional thinking. We’re all too smart for our own good when it comes to course correcting the ship. Our Expert Mindset immediately jumps to “can’t because” and falls victim to the same conventional thinking of the category and your competitors which you are trying to break away from. A Beginner’s Mindset is more flexible, it allows “Can/If” thinking as described in A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden (see Mark Barden explain it here). This openness allows way more flexibility to problem solve, overcoming conventional challenges by rephrasing the context — “We CAN [achieve objective] IF we [remove preconceptions].”
  3. The Beginner’s Mindset drives greater success: One of the biggest hurdles to any turnaround, any pivot, any change is perceived risk of failure — i.e. “What if this doesn’t work?” This is perfect Expert (i.e. burdened with knowledge) thinking. The Beginner inverts this line of thinking by asking, “How could it work?” Many new product launches — especially in CPG categories — are being won by smaller and mid-sized companies asking how they can. Not how or why they can’t.

So, when faced with needing a turnaround, make sure you are challenging your industry truths and preconceived Expert thinking with open, curious, Beginner Mindset thinking.