Transforming Minds and Organisations

Jun 2, 2020| Daniel Jones

All too often organisational transformations fail because leaders, technologists, consultants and agile coaches consider only part of the culture-change landscape. By using Harvard psychology professor Howard Gardner’s model of mindset change we can increase the chance of successful cultural change within individuals, teams and organisations. Whilst not a panacea or a ‘how to’ guide, knowing and using the model can help leaders effect long-lasting change.

Cultural change is hard (thankfully - imagine the societal consequence if it was not). Even so, much cultural change in the workplace fails because the, most sophisticated messaging is “stop doing that and do this, because senior management has decided so.”

Cultural change is an intrinsic part of organisational transformation. An organisation’s culture informs its practices, and vice versa. People don’t adopt new practices without adopting new beliefs.

When trying to help a business become a learning organisation that is continuously delivering, are you giving people the skills they need? Are you equipping them with facts and mental models? Are you backing these things up with human stories? Are you presenting the idea in many ways? Is the idea being communicated in a way that emotionally resonates with people? Are you addressing only individuals, or broadcasting information to groups too?

All the above and more need considering. Viewed through this lens, it’s unsurprising that most mindset change fails.


Before going into the details of the model, I’ll highlight the key take-aways for those short on time:

Axes of the Model

Gardner’s model consists of entities (things that exist in the mind), arenas in which mind change can occur, and factors that folks take into account when shifting their beliefs. By considering cultural change along these axes we can identify where our arguments may need bolstering, and how ideas could be communicated differently.

ConceptsLarge heterogeneousReason
Theories/modelsLarge homogeneousResearch
SkillsFormal setting (education)Representational redescriptions
IndividualReal-world events

Gardner does not claim that his model is exhaustive, rather the contrary. It is however a useful starting point.

(In my view a notable omission from his list of entities of the mind are beliefs or value judgements about a thing, such as “X is bad” or, “I’m a member of this group, we don’t do Y.” The sense of identity seems to be very key to technologists and what they are and are not willing to do.)


These are the things in the mind that can be changed.


Concepts in the sense of Gardner’s model are ideas or notions, and best demonstrated by examples.

Test-driven development is a concept. Continuous delivery is a concept. ‘Cat’ is a concept. Concepts are concepts! Concepts are lodged into people’s minds by awareness-raising: informing them of something that they didn’t know existed before.


In this context, theories are mental models of “if this, then that.” If TDD is a concept, than an accompanying theory might be: “if I write tests before the implementation, I will be able to prove it works.”

Interestingly this category includes the notion of counterfactuals, or the idea that human intelligence has sufficiently sophisticated models of the world that we can pose the question “what if that didn’t happen”, which is an area that artificial intelligence struggles with.


It’s remarkable how influenced by stories humans are. My father was a press photographer, and I remember him pointing out that “there’s got to be a story” in a news article. It wasn’t enough to present the facts: folks want to know about the people involved and the journey they went on. We remember things better when they’re part of a narrative; we’re emotionally affected by stories.

We tell stories to our children; we consume stories on TV and film; we tell stories at the water-cooler; we read stories in the form of case studies; we dream of stories at night.

In the context of organisational transformation, this might be a case study, or anecdotes from someone who went on a similar journey. Note that it will be embellished with how people felt at different stages, who the actors were, and how people’s daily lives were impacted.


Skills represent the brain’s ability to make the body do a practical task. Consider the difference between knowing about a thing (concept) and being able to do it (skill).

One can attend a seminar on eXtreme Programming, but being a good pair-programmer takes practice and self-awareness. Having taught martial arts during the peak of Internet forum culture I can tell you there’s a world of difference between knowing facts about an activity and being able to do it.


The arenas in which mindset change can take place largely speak for themselves:

Different tools and techniques are needed to work at different scales. Persuading an individual is patently different to persuading a group of people - otherwise one-on-one chats and pre-meeting-meetings wouldn’t be so prevalent!

At larger scales, art and technology can effect change - think of influential musicians, or perhaps artistic movements. In the realm of the IT organisation, consider how Docker changed people’s attitudes towards DevOps.

Simple stories work better than complex ones at large scales. Consider the simplicity of the political messaging that appears to be winning popular votes around the world.

There is interdependence between the adjacent scales. Changing an individual’s mind on a matter is going to be a darn sight easier if their team/friends/family are also on-board with the idea. Changing a team’s mindset is going to be easier if individuals are bought-in, and if the wider organisation is.


In this area of his model, Gardner insists on alliteration which I think undermines one’s ability to understand the model clearly. I’m guessing he thought it would either lead to more resonance or be easier to remember. I find it distracting rather than helpful, but then again I’m not a Harvard professor!


Simply put: logical arguments. Is the idea internally consistent? Does it hold up to rational scrutiny?


If the ‘reason’ factor represents a logical model, then the ‘research’ factor represents an audience’s desire to seek validation of the model. This might be by seeking data from others, or by testing the model themselves.


Does this idea emotionally resonate with the target? Do they feel something in response to it?

The importance of emotional resonance is often under-rated or ignored by technologists. By contrast the livelihoods of marketers and user experience designers depend very much on it. In the era of fake news, we’re sadly all too familiar with the notion that information doesn’t need to be true, it just needs to feel true. The most sound logical argument is unlikely to effect change if an audience is emotionally disengaged from it.

Representational Redescriptions

Can the idea be represented in different ways, and still ring true? Has it been represented in different ways? How many ways can the idea be considered and still seem sound? Does the idea hold up when described in text? As a diagram? As a story?

Suggestions for how to redescribe an idea feature at the end of this article.


Will I get more? Will I spend more? Is there a reward to this new proposed idea? Am I going to earn more money? Will I get a promotion? Or, by contrast, is my pension at risk? How many resources do I need to expend to adopt this idea?

Extrinsic rewards (money, points) can be enough to change the behaviour of some people for a time, but often results in cognitive dissonance. I’m sure we’re all familiar with folks who are happy to do something they don’t believe in, as long as it makes them money. These aren’t really positions that are truly assimilated into the beliefs of the individual - they’re excuses used to justify behaviour. This lever on its own is unlikely to effect genuine, long-standing mindset change.

Rewards don’t need to be extrinsic. They could include helping one’s peers, or knowing that a job has been well done.

Real World Events

This factor represents the context wider than the mindset change in question. How many political movements have been tipped by a pivotal event at a crucial moment?


Not all factors are conducive to mindset change, and people are resistant to new ideas to different degrees. If these new ideas conflict with habits and autonomous behaviours of the individual, then even if they are consciously supportive of the new regime they will experience emotional distress.

The conscious mind narrates the activity of its host after the fact. Finding a conflict between subconscious behaviour and rational ideals, forces a justification of those actions which can pan out one of two ways: I’m wrong or this idea is wrong. The former carries a much higher emotional cost.

It’s also worth mentioning the phenomenon of reactance: resisting any idea or proposal that limits the freedoms of the individual. Lives have been sacrificed and wars have been fought for the sake of freedom, so it’s little wonder that any idea that reduces the agency of the individual will be met with hostility.

Applying the Model

When EngineerBetter was founded, we lamented that other folks would shrug their shoulders and say things like “It’s a people problem! Culture change is hard!”

Both those statements are true. Which is why we at EngineerBetter do something about it, and approach the matter with well-considered tools and techniques.

Transitioning an organisation to cloud-native continuous deployment is not simply a matter of throwing Kubernetes at the problem. People need to change their minds about what needs to be done, and how to do it. They need to change their mind about what is possible. Most of all, they need to change their mind about what they are capable of. These changes combined are a non-trivial undertaking.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Avoiding Reactance

As we deliver apps, infrastructure and transformations, EngineerBetter teach people new practices and crucially show individuals new skills before their old ways of working are threatened.

If you tell someone that their current practices have to stop before equipping them for the brave new world, they’re going to feel cornered. Their freedom and agency will be threatened. If you upskill and enable them in new ways of working before deprecating their older habits, they’ll already have a route forward - instead of feeling threatened, it’ll simply be a matter of moving on.

You’d like to see your new house and know where you’re going before being evicted, right?

Holistic Approach

With our immersive training courses, pair-programming delivery, and consultancy we give people the confidence that they can do things the new way, before suggesting that the old way should cease. We know what good looks like, even though every organisation will take a different journey. We can relay stories and anecdotes from past experience. We can explain the theoretical models of how continuous delivery, eXtreme Programming and Lean work in unison. We can tell people what’s happening in the real world, in other organisations.

Gardner’s Suggestions for Redescription

In his book, Gardner helpfully enumerates some ways to representationally redescribe an idea. Being able to describe an idea in all of these ways greatly improves its chances of effecting change.

  1. Narrative: are there stories about the idea? What about the journey someone went on when adopting it? What happened to the people that adopted continuous delivery?
  2. Quantitative: facts and figures. How much faster is continuous delivery? How much rework did it avoid? How much more money did the business make as a result?
  3. Logic: does the idea stand up to scrutiny? Does it align with other accepted methods of reasoning? How does working in small, frequent batches reduce risk rather than increase it?
  4. Existential: what does this mean for people? Does it help us lead better lives? Does practising continuous delivery lead to increased motivation and less wasted time at work?
  5. Aesthetic: is the idea beautiful? Does it show elegance? Does continuous delivery allow us to strip away ugly, complicated, manual processes?
  6. Hands-on: showing the idea in action. This is why our immersive week-in-the-life training courses work so well.
  7. Social: what impact could this have on other people? What groups will it make you a part of? Once you’re continuously delivering cloud-native software, will you be part of a bigger community? Will continuously delivering features in record time help the lives of your customers?

Is this upheld by neuroscience?

Gardner’s approach dovetails with his theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests in essence that humans have multiple bits of psychological machinery with which to consider the world:

The idea should not be conflated with the repeatedly-refuted idea of learning styles. The theory of multiple intelligences is not without its critics, and it remains to be seen how well the idea maps onto empirical findings of cognitive neuroscience (the current answer is ’not very well’).

For our purposes, the theory of multiple intelligences serves as a useful framework, regardless of the underlying mechanisms, to consider that folks can interpret the same issue in a multitude of ways. Much as sales techniques like SPIN don’t map to any specific neurological model, we don’t need a proven mechanical relationship of causality in order to find use in a mental tool.

Bringing People Along

Organisational transformation should be about bringing benefits to as many people as possible - improving outcomes, improving productivity, improving job satisfaction, and improving people’s working lives.

Anyone working in a large bank’s technology team will have experienced at least one failed ‘agile transformation’. Given the rich tapestry of the human mind, is it any wonder that top-down transformations rarely work?

As well as delivering tangible technical change, and upskilling operators and developers, EngineerBetter have used Liberating Structures and department-wide facilitation techniques to ensure that everyone is brought along for the journey. We can do the same for you too, but… That’s another blog post.

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