Mental Agility: Mindsets Aligned With Reality

WHILE WE ALL recognize the benefits of physical agility, we often underestimate the value of mental agility. Mental agility, or a willingness to collect and evaluate information from all vantage points, is routinely blocked by personal preferences, habits and current fads. Leaders frequently fail to keep an open mind, or neglect to take a fresh look at internal and external realities. Instead, knee-jerk responses dominate. In fact, a study of leaders found that 80% never consider an alternative before making a decision (Nutt, Why Decisions Fail, 2002).

When decisions are simple and routine in nature, leaders generally skip the process of searching for new information or dismiss the anamind-mindset-mental-idea-thoughtlysis of alternatives. Without analysis, however, we revert to the well-worn and comfortable path that has probably become a rut. Relying on what we already know and what we have always done excludes what is new, what is possible, and what is changing. Complex or wicked decisions require intentional analysis to surface opportunities and gauge current realities. Investing in analysis and “thinking out-of-the-box” ensures that we position ourselves for success while sidestepping pitfalls and avoiding costly blunders.

Operating from only one mindset limits the information we are willing to consider and predetermines what action we take. Mindsets are not connected with IQ or leadership style. After all, if you inherited a few million dollars your vacation decision-making changes. New realities, including financial windfalls, influence our decisions, whether we are extroverts or introverts. Financial resources are not the only factor that comes into play. The amount of vacation time you have available, school calendars, and weather may also play a role. Most decisions require us to integrate multiple and shifting variables.

In business, there is inherent risk in focusing on a single factor or goal. Targeting immediate needs can make sense, but only after all relevant factors are weighed. For example, one firm rashly cut its marketing and sales budget and staff to save cash. The lack of adequate staff soon created a delay in the launch of a breakthrough product. Instead of jumping to preserve cash, a wiser leader might have examined all available information including the product pipe line and considered alternatives that would have kept marketing personnel , or some portion of it, in place. The situation required out-of-the-box thinking and integrating disparate factors.

Thinking out of the box regularly wins kudos. Yet, few leaders provide a template for critical analysis to enable their staff to boost their critical thinking skills. A situation analysis framework overcomes any proclivity for narrow viewpoints. A comprehensive mindset analysis covers: product innovation, customer/market focus, systems and structure, process and profit, talent and culture, and trends and new opportunities. If you are interested in questions for each mindset, contact [email protected]

Remember: leaders need mental agility to juggle competing demands and multiple factors to make the right decision that deliver the right results the right way at the right time.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. I love the out of the box thinking. It brings creativity to the process and in not a different solution, at least a method for making sure more than one possibility has been considered. I like the way you conclude. Remember: leaders need mental agility to juggle competing demands and multiple factors to make the right decision that deliver the right results the right way at the right time.

    • Jane,

      Like you I like out of the box thinking, it just needs to be paired with a careful risk analysis. Sometimes our enthusiasm over a creative idea blinds us to hurdles, unintended consequences and blowback.