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What's Your Innovation Mindset?

Gaining new creative traction through changing how we think.

Grete Howard via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Grete Howard via Wikimedia Commons

Are there different routes to learning how to be more innovative and entrepreneurial? Which would work best?:

(1) Teaching good business skills, such as accounting and marketing, or

(2) Being taught to adopt an adaptively flexible, opportunity-seeking mindset?

To answer these questions, an international team of researchers from the U.S. World Bank and universities in Singapore and Germany compared the effects of two different multi-week training interventions on the business performance of some 1500 small business enterprises in Togo, West Africa.

Putting it to the test

Applicants were encouraged to apply through radio and television announcements, posted flyers, door-to-door communication, and information events with organizations. To be eligible to take part, the small business needed to have been in existence for 12 months or more, to employ fewer than 50 employees, and could not be involved in agricultural production or fishing. The researchers then used a (stratified) sampling approach that helped to distribute the 1500 firms evenly in terms of their primary focus (production, commerce, services), their profitability, and owner-gender, into three groups: traditional business training ("Business Edge"), personal initiative mindset training, or a no intervention control group.

In the Business Edge training group, participants learned about such core business topics as accounting and financial management, marketing, and human resource management.

The personal initiative mindset training program was different. It focused, instead, on teaching the participants a "mindset of self-starting behavior." It emphasized the importance of responding proactively (rather than reactively) to situations, of identifying and making the most of opportunities, of setting goals and planning, of actively seeking and learning from feedback, and overcoming obstacles.

Each of the training programs involved a total of 36 hours of classroom instruction, with participants attending class for three half-day sessions for each of four weeks. After this classroom-based instruction, a trainer went to each business once per month for the next four months, each time for a period of about three hours, offering help in concretely putting into practice what they had learned.

To chart the effects of the two training interventions, researchers followed up with four rounds of surveys spread across a period of more than two years.

The self-starting mindset training significantly more strongly boosted monthly profits (and a combined measure of sales and profits) than did the traditional Business Edge training.

Compared with the control group (which received no training at all) the self-starting mindset training group also showed marked and significant gains in monthly sales (a 17 percent increase compared with the control mean) and monthly profits (a 30 percent increase compared with the control mean). These improvements were seen for both female-owned and male-owned businesses, and for firms at all levels of performance, not just for the best performing firms.

Clearly, something changed in the personal initiative mindset training group. But what?

Looking deeper into mindsets

The personal initiative training program focused on three main aspects: (a) self-starting actions, for example, doing something that differentiates your business from other businesses, (b) longer-term future thinking, for example, considering business opportunities or problems that might arise in one year's time, and (c) persistence, for example, not giving up when one approach fails, but learning from the mistakes and obstacles that were encountered and trying to develop alternative plans instead.

Firms that had gone through the mindset training showed a significant increase in their innovation behavior. They introduced more new products, especially products that were their own ideas, and that were new for their neighborhood. Surprisingly, they also showed improvements in their business practices, even though these were not explicitly taught during the training.

We know from other research that the mindset we adopt powerfully shapes how creative––and creatively persistent––we can be in the face of challenges. We should ask ourselves about our own mindset. What is our mindset toward creativity? Do we have a growth mindset about creative endeavors, so that we tend to agree with statements such as, "If I want to be more creative I have to work at it," and "Everyone can create something great at some point if he or she is given appropriate conditions." Or, rather, do we have a fixed mindset tending to see creativity as something we either have, or do not have, believing that, "You either are creative or you are not—even trying very hard you cannot change much," and "A truly creative talent is innate and constant throughout one's entire life."

A growth mindset toward creativity has been found to be associated with higher feelings of creative capability such as having a knack for developing new ideas, a far-reaching imagination, and a ready ability to build on the ideas of others. This seems to fit well with the study's findings, that the small business owners, when trained to adopt a growth mindset about self-starting, actually innovated more, and showed higher individuality and initiative.

But is the direction of the effects only one way? Do growth-related creativity beliefs help to fuel a person's practice, learning, and effort––which then promotes their creative self-efficacy? Or does an individual's creative self-efficacy fuel how much effort and energy they exert in seeking to extend their creative learning and skill? Or might both be true? That's an important open question for future research.

To think about

  • How might you infuse your creative process with greater initiative and stronger individuality?
  • How might you––and you working together with your team––purposefully promote more proactive propensities in how you see opportunities and challenges? Or occasions for goal-guiding feedback?
  • Are there ways you can develop your own growth mindset that help you see creativity as something that you need to regularly practice and proactively promote?


Campos, F., Frese, M., Goldstein, M., Iacovone, L., Johnson, H. C., McKenzie, D., & Mensmann, M. (2017). Teaching personal initiative beats traditional training in boosting small business in West Africa. Science, 357, 1287–1290.

Haas, R. W., Katz-Buonincontro, J., & Reiter-Palmon, R. (2016). Disentangling creative mindsets from creative self-efficacy and creative identity: Do people hold fixed and growth theories of creativity? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10, 436–446.