What is a Mindset?

In Rightshifting and the Marshall Model, I use the term mindset quite frequently. For me, this term has taken on a very specific meaning – a meaning which I can appreciate may not correspond to others’ understanding of the term. In this post I’ll be defining the term as it pertains to the Rightshifting canon.

Memes and Memeplexes

According to Wiktionary, a memeplex (n.) is “A set of memes which interact to reinforce each other”. So, a mindset is very much like a memeplex – a set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, heuristics, etc. (e.g. memes) which interact to reinforce each other.

“A memeplex is a set of memes which, while not necessarily being good survivors on their own, are good survivors in the presence of other members of the memeplex.”

~ Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion

In his book “Radical Management”, Steve Denning makes the point that the conventional organisational mindset is a set of beliefs about the world and the world of work which act to reinforce each other.

These interlocking beliefs tightly bind organisations into a straight-jacket of thought patterns which many find inescapable. Simply tackling any one of these interlocking beliefs just causes the other (memes) to tighten their grip to compensate – and so preserve the memeplex. Without coordinated interventions at multiple points in the memeplex simultaneously, these interactions will prevail, as will the status quo.

“But if we consider culture as its own self organizing system,—a system with its own agenda and pressure to survive—then the history of humanity gets even more interesting. As Richard Dawkins has shown, systems of self-replicating ideas or memes can quickly accumulate their own agenda and behaviours. I assign no higher motive to a cultural entity than the primitive drive to reproduce itself and modify its environment to aid its spread. One way the self organizing system can do this is by consuming human biological resources.”

~ Kevin Kelly, Out of Control 1994, p.360

We can identify many memes in the world of work – management, hierarchy, power, relationships, remuneration, direction, outcomes, stakeholders, customers, value;  to name but a few. And in a sense each meme is its own memeplex. But it’s when certain of these memes combine, in a give configuration – a.k.a. set –  that the pernicious homeostatic effects of the whole collective memeplex becomes significant.

And we can label many, many distinct memeplexes, or mindsets. The Marshall Model isolates and contrasts just four (i.e. Ad-hoc, Analytic, Synergistic and Chaordic). For the purposes of the model, only these four seem required. The infinity of other mindsets remain, even in the context of the world of work, but the model settles on just these four to explain the variation in organisational effectiveness (of knowledge-work organisations everywhere).

Conversely, others, such as Dean Leffingwell with his “Six Legacy Mindsets”, use the term “mindset” quite differently. (I’d rather call these six “Legacy Memes”).

Change as Punctuated Equilibria

If we reflect on mindsets as self-preserving, self-reinforcing memeplexes, we can begin to understand how a transition from one mindset to another requires a more or less comprehensive, simultaneous overthrow of one memeplex for another. In any given memeplex, attempting to simply swap out selected memes, one for another, on an incremental basis appears infeasible. I have seen evidence of this in many organisations with whom I have worked over the years.

William Bridges also talks about this in his books “Transitions” and “Managing Transitions”, which in turn draw on Kurt Lewin‘s basic “unfreeze-change-refreeze” model for change. When applied to organisations, the first step is to let go of existing certainties (abandon the prevailing memeplex). This leads to a state of flux (or even chaos), which is a necessary condition from which to proceed on to acquiring (at least some) core elements of a whole new memeplex. This is also not dissimilar to the Satir change model.

This in turn suggests that transitions of this nature are, in fact, a form of Punctuated Equilibria.

How does this match with your perspective, experiences? I value your contribution.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Meme Machine ~ Dr Susan Blackwell
Cultural Selection Theory (A branch of Universal Darwinism)
Emergent Norm Theory
Virginia Satir page at Wikipedia
Satir/Weinberg Change Curve or “That Modei is Wrong?” ~ Blog post by Bas Vodde