When presented with a challenging predicament — revenue was slashed in half by COVID-19, the toddler tested his new crayons on the wall — do you:

A. Question how this happened, then evaluate as many possible solutions as possible
B. Trust your gut — you've seen many crises before — and start solving

If you answered A, there’s a high likelihood you're disposed toward what psychologist Patricia Chen, former student of famed Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, calls a "strategic mindset."

In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Chen and her team present the strategic mindset as a key differentiator between those who effectively and efficiently solve novel problems, and those who fall behind.

"A strategic mindset reveals itself when people are faced with challenges or notice that they or their teams are working unproductively," says Chen. "Those with a strategic mindset tend to ask themselves strategy-eliciting questions such as: What can I do to help myself? How else can I do this? Is there a way to do this even better?"

These strategy-eliciting questions prompt the individual to consider whether there are different and better ways to accomplish the task at hand, and to rely on intentional strategies (rather than blind execution) more often. "Our studies found that people who ask these strategic mindset questions tend to generate and apply better strategies, making them more effective at problem-solving than others," Chen explains.

Unlike growth mindset, the psychological concept coined by Carol Dweck that encourages hard work and persistence, strategic mindset is focused on the effective strategies that complement persistence to achieve challenging, long-term goals. "Simply exhorting yourself to try harder could eventually become discouraging if you're doubling down on an unproductive strategy," says Chen. "A strategic mindset might motivate you to search for new strategies, consult with mentors, or seek out other experts."

To test the impact of a strategic mindset, Chen's team, including Dweck, ran three experiments involving over 800 people in the US, as Lila MacLellan reports in Quartz. The first experiment surveyed high school students on how frequently they assess the ways they study. Higher strategic mindset scores were correlated with more time spent planning, generating strategies, monitoring, and adjusting study techniques, which in turn correlated with higher GPAs. The second study proved a correlation between strategic mindset and achieving your goals at work, in school, and at the gym.

The third and most striking study asked two groups of participants to separate 30 eggs into yolks and whites through any methods. Whoever separated the most eggs the quickest won $100. Some participants read an article about strategic mindset prior, and others read an unrelated article. This task was carefully designed to be relatively unfamiliar, possible to accomplish through different methods, and oriented toward clear performance metrics.

The participants who previewed strategic mindset explored more ways to strategically separate the eggs, separated more eggs more quickly, and were more likely to evaluate and adapt their methods along the way. Effectively, they won.

What this research proves is that there is an underlying mindset which can predict how some people naturally use metacognitive strategies to achieve success. What’s more, it's possible for individuals to actively cultivate that mindset.

Given our responsibility to steward organizations through immense volatility, senior leaders have perhaps the most to gain from adopting a strategic mindset. Awareness is a crucial first step. In Chen's experiment, participants who were made aware of the value of strategic mindset in achieving success were significantly more likely to reflect upon and choose efficient courses of action. Next, leaders can make a habit of asking themselves strategic mindset questions whenever they are feeling unproductive or encounter difficulty in their personal or professional lives: "What can I do to help myself?" or "Is there a way to do this even better?". You may even place a sticky note with these questions written on it near your desk — a reminder whenever you're tackling a new or difficult problem.

Like Dweck's growth mindset, strategy mindset will not come naturally to all. Still, it's necessary work. "Leaders with a strategic mindset appear more likely to apply metacognitive strategies — such as setting and conveying clear, realistic goals for the organization, laying out concrete plans to work toward these goals, and closely monitoring feedback about how well their strategies are working," says Chen. "These behaviors very much contribute to professional success."

Originally Published: August 10, 2020