The importance of an external mindset in project management

Knowledge, skills and experience form the basis of a successful project. But with the right mindset, the project team can multiply success. In this blog post, Tommi Virta sheds some light on how a project team’s mindset impacts the end result. An “external mindset” can work wonders in a project and bring more meaning and well-being to the project team.

After working on many different projects for many years, I’ve had the honor of working with all kinds of people and personalities. This sparked a keen interest in organizational culture, teamwork, performance and leadership. The Arbinger Institute has published an interesting book called Leadership and Self-deception*, where they explain how a team’s state of mind affects its performance and well-being. According to them, there are two main states of mind. You can either lean towards an inner mindset or an outer mindset. With an inner mindset, you treat people like objects without regard to their needs and feelings. You focus on accomplishing your own task without thinking about how to help others and the success of the project as a whole. You act according to your needs and your role in the project. The focus is more narrow-minded and the goals and objectives are self-centered.

With an outward mindset, you care about your colleagues and see them as people with all that that entails. You care about the work of others and the end result of the team effort. The focus is on “how can I help”, not “what is my job”. Becoming aware of the difference and changing the mindset of the project team has a significant impact on the quality of the work and the well-being of the team.
An external mindset is essential for effective project collaboration

In a sailing race we have a number of people working together on board in their own positions. All depend on each other to perform their duties. If a team member suddenly needs help, they rush to serve. They remain focused on the race as a whole as well as their own role in it, always realizing that it is the sum of joint effort and teamwork that counts in the end.

This same ideology applies to organizations, especially in complex project organizations where different teams work together on the same project. Let’s say for example, that an engineering team and a purchasing team are working on a project. If the buyer cares more about ordering from the usual, easy-to-access supplier than finding a faster, but more labor-intensive alternative, his individual goal may be achieved, but the project may be delayed. If both teams have an inner mindset, they see all of their tasks as simple tasks that they need to complete. With this kind of mindset, the purpose of doing these tasks is completely different from doing them with an external mindset. If they were working with an outside mindset, they would see these tasks as something they do for the team to help complete the project they are all working on together. They would treat each other as important internal customers.

How to Broadcast an Outdoor Mindset on a Project Site

Some people seem to be born with an outward mindset, but the challenge, especially in larger organizations, is that the whole organization has to think the same way to reach its full potential. And for that to happen, it has to be taught as part of the culture of the organization.
As a project manager, I consider it my duty to set an example by spreading a spirit of openness on the site. This is best done by rewarding and encouraging outward behavior and making sure everyone can see that we are “building a cathedral, not just laying bricks”.
We need constant training and dedicated moments of active reflection on how the team and each member can 1) see the needs and goals of other team and project members, 2) adjust their efforts and their ways of working to be more useful, and 3) finding ways to measure and hold everyone accountable for the impact of their work on others and on the project. It’s also important to define roles and job descriptions in a way that sets the tone for serving and helping others, rather than simply listing the tasks to be performed.

The beauty of an outward mindset in a team, in addition to getting better results, is that it motivates and engages team members giving them pride and greater meaning than just check off their own tasks. An outward mindset is a great contributor to a culture of well-being and great achievement.