Don’t Go Back To Work: How Habits of Mind Can Change the Way We Work

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”
Peter Drucker

How will the culture of your school or business change as a result of COVID? That is the question many leaders and community are asking. Whether your go to school, work in non-profits, or business, “Things Have Changed” (Bob Dylan song).

So, the question becomes, ‘what will our organizations look, sound, and feel like as we transition to a new way of working. Some more questions:

What structures and processes will we keep and what will we jettison? Based on the work of Barry Johnson (2020) and Polarity Partnerships ( there are good things we want to keep doing and new ways to collaborate to accomplish our mission. Both resources have an effective process to determine the blend of good ideas.

“When experiencing the tyranny of Or, the natural correction is to go to the genius of And”
Barry Johnson

What will do to prepare our organizations for an unknown future? We believe the work of Marshall Goldsmith (2007) can provide a pathway to thinking. Goldsmith wrote, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Values don’t necessarily change and how you get there probably will change.

“If you don’t like change, you will like irrelevance a lot less.”
General Erik Shinseki

Goldsmith coined the term “FeedForward.” The premise is you can learn what did or didn’t work from feedback and data. What is critical is what do we do now moving forward? FeedForward is ‘developing a plan of action based on the existing state of affairs. FeedForward creates a plan of action for a preferred future.

What are the attributes of a dynamic, creative workplace that attracts and retains the best employees who contribute to the mission, vision, and values? One way is to align a future learning culture based on the Habits of Mind developed by Costa and Kallick (2008). These sixteen (16) habits have shown to elevate learning in schools. Several of the habits have been foundational in creating innovative cultures in business. (Costa & Kallick, 2020).

What are Habits of Mind?
Derived from the studies of successful people in many walks of life, the Habits of Mind is a set of 16 thinking dispositions at the core of social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors (Costa & Kallick, 2008). These Habits help us respond intelligently and empathically when confronted with problem situations, conflicts, and uncertainties the resolutions to which are not immediately apparent. Our hypothesis is that if these are the attributes of successful people, then how can we teach them to students so that they will be successful in life as well? And if students learn them, might we create a more mindful and thought-full world culture?

A graphic for quick reference is below.


The culture lives in the hearts and minds of the people doing the work. Yes, the leader can set the tone and the mission. Think about the ticket agent for an airline or a teacher in the classroom. The culture is evident when the customer meets the ticket agent. The culture is evident when the student interacts with the teacher. HOM 6 – Striving for Accuracy.

The greatest power that leaders have is that they can influence the narrative of the school. If the narrative focuses on current educational fads, test scores, and compliance with mandates, then that is what is perceived as the importance of learning. In such schools, students learn to get to class on time, raise their hand when they wish to speak or ask a question, and listen to the teacher. Instead, if the narrative is becoming aware of and controlling thinking processes, what it means to be an empathic listener, and what alternative strategies might be generated to solve problems, then teachers and students learn to perceive learning in a different way. This reframes how teachers and students view learning: one that requires responding intelligently to challenges, having strategies to comprehend and tackle complex problems, and viewing setbacks as opportunities for learning.

Leaders must be overt about the culture, model it, and align policies with the operational processes. Patrick Lencioni (2002) said leaders must ‘overcommunicate’ with the employees. Our experience tells us that people get busy with the day-to-day and forget. How do you keep the mission, vision, and values alive in your organization. HOM 9 – Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision.

Your culture is defined by your customers whether they buy products, are students in the classroom, and/or part of a community where the organization resides. It is important to get feedback to assess progress or regression of the organizational mission. This is why HOM 3 – Listening with understanding and empathy is so critical to making the organizational responsive and responsible.

Along with HOM 3, HOM 7 – Questioning and Problem Posing is foundational for innovative companies. Pixar uses this in their process of ‘Plussing.’ See Ed Catmull’s (2014) book. The process brings people together, no trashing of ideas, adding suggestions that will make an issue better, and contribute to the group.
Here are questions you might ask?

  • What did you do today that created value for your customers?
  • Educational leaders: What did you do today that created value for your teachers and staff?
  • Teachers: What did you do today that created value for your students?
  • How do you define success?
  • How do you serve others?

When speaking to state superintendents I, Bill, ask a question to the audience. “How do you feel about working with volunteers?” Crickets. I went on to say your best teachers don’t have to work for you. The same is true in business. Your best people don’t have to work for you. Star Performers can find a job. If retention of star performers is important, what kind of culture will attract and retain your best?

This is where HOM 15 – Thinking Interdependently accelerates learning. As Catmull, Pixar said: “Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they’ll get the ideas right.”

Some of the best innovative companies have interdependent thinking and collaboration as their lifeblood. Read about Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, etc. They all have processes that increase talking together creating new ways to get better. Ah, HOM 11 – Creating, Imagining, and Innovating emerges.

At Apple they a leadership motto: Experts coaching Experts. We think this is an example of HOM 16 – Remaining Open to Continuous Learning. We learn in many ways. Art and Bill get together regularly on the phone, email, and yes, in person to share our own learning, expanding the perspectives, and talking about applications.

“Knowledge is Important AND Insufficient”

All of us can learn new things. If you can’t apply ideas to real people in real work situations in real time, what good are they? Does the knowledge transfer to making a difference to people and organizations? Technology certainly can help. Face to Face communication is important to sustain relationships is. People who internalize the Habits of Mind expand their personal power. They are more likely to have a broader view of what is possible. They may ask themselves, “What strategies do I have at my disposal that could benefit others?” “How might I use this opportunity to reaffirm my continuing quest for a world that is filled with justice, dignity, and love?” The future depends on people who have dedicated themselves to solving problems the answers to which are not yet apparent. When we internalize the Habits of Mind, we strengthen our capacity to know what to do when we don’t know what to do. The ultimate outcomes of internalizing the Habits of Mind are optimism, confidence and hope.

So, “Don’t go back to work, Go Forward to NEW work.” Make it a better place for people who will contribute to a better world by using the Habits of Mind.

Catmull, Ed (2014). Creativity, Inc. New York: Random House.

Costa, Art and Kallick, Bena (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASDC Publications.

Johnson, Barry. (2020). And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma. Volume One. Sacramento, CA: Polarity Partnerships.

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there. New York: Hyperion

Lencioni, P. (2002). The four obsessions of an extraordinary executive. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Polarity Partnerships –