Growth mindsets and lucky coaches

Editor’s warning – a long article with personal comments and opinions. Probably 10 minutes to read.

My daughter Kiran recently published an article on the growth mindset.

After she published her article, I spent some time thinking about the topic in a little more depth. I decided that would be much easier to teach a class full of kids, if they all have a growth mindset.

Here is my reasoning:

  • Kids with growth mindsets will seek opportunities learn from and will regularly ask for feedback that they can use improve their learning. They are also more fun to be around because they curious and hard working.
  • I imagine that with a critical mass of growth mindset kids in the class, they would also infect the others with this positive attitude. They would create a sense of psychological safety, mutual support, and they would be resilient as they encountered bumps in the road.
  • The lucky teacher who has a class like this will find them a pleasure to teach and will be able to do their best work, leading to great satisfaction.

Then I thought about the various teachers that I have had along the way and I began to wonder if they felt lucky when they found me and my friends in the class.

When I was at school, I would constantly daydream and regularly switch off when I found topics boring. I would engage for a few minutes when something caught my attention, but then I would start thinking about much more exciting and relevant things, like what tv shows I could be watching or how cool it would be if we had space travel.

When I got home from school though, it was a different story.

I have always had an insatiable curiosity for learning all kinds of things when I was not required to do so.

I spent countless hours learning about animals, aeroplanes, history, mythology, dungeons and dragons, spaceships, astrophysics and many other subjects along the way.

It was not just learning that I applied myself to either, I loved reading books on all kinds of topics and I would eagerly spend hours on jigsaws or “Airfix” models of planes, ships and similar things. The more challenging the model, then more I would focus my energy and attention and the more I loved doing it.

I have always had a growth mindset when it comes to jigsaws

You could say that I was a highly motivated child, just not motivated to do schoolwork.

So it seems my teachers would have been lucky to have me in a class where I was learning the physics of space flight, or if they had a class on jigsaw puzzles, but they would be really unlucky if they were trying to teach me spelling or other boring pursuits.

I know what you are thinking though – maybe teachers are not really just lucky or unlucky. Maybe they are skilled at making things seem cool. Maybe they can turn spelling and times tables into something awesome. Indeed I had some awesome teachers who could do this to an extent, but nobody who could have made learning my times tables anything but a repetitive slog.

Overall though my teachers managed to give me a pretty good education, including the drilling in the fundamentals and encouraging a thirst for more learning. So they must have been doing something right and in this respect I was definitely lucky.

When I started my first job I really was also very lucky.

I started work in a small firm where the people I worked with set high expectations, but they didn’t just demand that I work hard or excel. Everyone more experienced than me was they to help me learn and some spent a great deal of their time and attention on mentoring me well beyond what was in their job descriptions.

As a result, I actually found learning complex tax laws challenging in a good way and I thrived on calculating retirement benefits and reconciling troublesome data. Work seemed less a slog and more a giant jigsaw puzzle that I go to wrestle with each day.

This early experience embedded a positive attitude to work and an expectation of those more senior of me that I have taken into every job since. Later on some of my managers fell a little short, but on the whole I seemed to be able to pick great managers and great peers to learn from.

In fact, I think I became a much better student after I left school and learning became both optional and clearly relevant to what I was trying to do at the time.

Either my teachers did a much better job than I gave them credit for at the time, or the people I worked with early in my career were secretly fantastic teachers .. or maybe I am lucky that both these statements are true.

Maybe it is not my teachers that were lucky to have me, it was me that was lucky to have them.

If this is true for me, then what about my daughter Kiran? It turns out that she is not into learning neat handwriting, good spelling or her times tables any more than I was. Yet, she still looks forward to school and she applies herself to subjects like spelling and times tables with a lot more discipline than I did.

Why is that?

It turns out that Kiran’s teacher did not just get lucky to stumble into a class full of kids with the right mindset for learning. She (Kiran’s current teacher) and the previous teachers that Kiran has had are experts at encouraging and developing a growth mindset in their students while also moving through a comprehensive curriculum of content.

Her teachers push Kiran to use deliberate practice and repetition to master things she would rather not bother with. They also create a clear reason for Kiran to learn and they create an environment that nourishes learning and growth.

All of this contributes to the development of a good mindset in the kids in the class and none of it happens overnight or in isolation.

Next I compared my extremely high expectations of Kiran’s teachers with my expectation of myself and my own profession, agile coaching.

I have sometimes been really lucky to inherit a team with an awesome mindset and the coaching has been really awesome. At other times I was stuck (er challenged) with a team or group of managers who “just do not get it.”

You can see where this is leading though – if teachers cannot just claim to be lucky or unlucky, then maybe it is the same for me.

My job is pretty tough though and I often encounter constraints, such as not being able to influence the management team as much as I want.

Uncomfortably though, I realise that there there are constraints teachers too.

For one, I realise that I cannot outsource all Kiran’s development to a school, we parents need to play a substantial role too. I cannot blame the teachers for poor parenting and while I might take some guidance from the teachers, I parent my daughter in my own way.

I guess that this is the same for coaches – you need to either help teach everyone in the team’s life, or you need to focus on what you can do, teach in the class or coach in the context you are in.

I also expect that my daughter will own her own destiny. I know she is only 8 years old but this is an important lesson that I want her to learn and so I want her to start now. This is the same with a team being coached – they need to learn that they own their own destiny, which can be a difficult lesson that takes a long time to absorb.

There are also other constraints for teachers:

  • A lot of parents are a hassle to work with (not me of course) while others “just don’t get how education works these days.” Some of these parents want their kids to get straight A’s in every subject without the parents taking any accountability for the child’s education and without allowing any time for the child to show proof of improvement. Other parents want to help but do not really know how, or are flat out with many other commitments.
  • Some kids arrive at school with the right mindset to begin with while others arrive with a terrible attitude or a complete lack of the basic skills they will need to succeed at the next stage of their school career.

I still expect that my daughter’s teachers will do an excellent job though. They can complain about their constraints or they can consciously plan how to leverage or mitigate them.

I guess we have similar constraints in each coaching assignment and we need to either call them out to reset our goals or find deliberate ways to leverage and mitigate the constraints you face.

While my daughter has had great teachers though, I am not trying to say that “teachers are always great – let’s be nice to them.”

I am actually saying that I expect a lot from my daughter’s teachers.

Nor am I saying that a great teacher can guarantee a great outcome. I think there are real constraints that face different teachers, classes, schools and even generations in different ways.

I am saying though that it is the teacher’s job to understand and plan for these constraints. I believe that a good teacher will still be able to teach the class well, even if there is a world wide pandemic.

With these high expectations of teachers then, I guess I am saying the same for me and by fellow coaches.

Just like with teaching school kids, a growth mindset is the ideal starting place for coaching. Having a group with a great mindset to start with is a luxury that should be seized, and for that matter leveraged to make the most of that opportunity.

However it is unlikely that we will encounter teams that have a consistent and ideal mindset across the board and that still need our coaching.

Just like teachers need to build a growth mindset while still delivering a curriculum, we need a deliberate approach to building, supporting and extending a growth mindset, while managing and adapting to the current constraints and limits of our ability to control the environment.

Of course the school system has 12 years to slowly build and hone the mindset and skills needed for learning, which is about 11 years and 9 months longer than I normally get. But each teacher only gets one year, broken into 3-4 terms of only a few weeks each.

In each term the teacher must encourage and extend the growth mindset and also instill an entire curriculum of new skills and abilities in all the kids in the class.

If good teachers create their own luck then I want to do the same. It just seems difficult if I want to achieve the same results as a teacher does.

That leads to my question for the week – what does it take to actually build a good mindset in a team, given the constraints and challenges that exist and given that we want to achieve a lot of other things along the way – improved output, scrummification of story backlogs or whatever?

How can I best encourage a growth mindset while also getting through the “curriculum” of other things that the team must achieve or master?

My inner voice for the week


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