By Robert M. Tomasko
Every organization—business, government or nonprofit—has two essential missions. It must maintain and preserve what it already does. It also must lay the groundwork for moving beyond the boundaries of its current activities. The first mission keeps the organization efficient and successful in today’s world. The second ensures it will survive and thrive in tomorrow's. One perfects the existing business formula; the other leads the charge to change it. Both missions are vital. Few companies can survive for long by paying attention to only one and ignoring the other, although, in the short run, they are rivals for attention and resources.
What makes the pursuit of these dual missions so difficult is that the basic assumptions required by each—their mindsets—are so different. Mindsets are shortcuts we use to explain the world to ourselves. They are how we think about what we are doing—our internal logic system. They are the models of the world we carry around in our head.
To make it easier to contrast the mindsets required by the twin missions, let’s give each a name. A Fixer mindset is concerned with what needs to be done to maintain and preserve the business as it is, within the logic of its current ideas. The Grower perspective, in contrast, is focused on what is necessary to move beyond what currently exists. When the grower’s mindset is employed, the business advances; when the fixer’s is used, it keeps afloat. Both are worthy objectives.
The Fixer Mindset
Fixers know how to maintain and improve existing operations. They are the drivers of today’s business model. Fixers keep the trains running on time. They are quick to spot any divergence from the plan. Fixers mount search-and-destroy missions to eliminate excess costs. They speed the flow of product to customers by streamlining critical business processes. They launch companywide quality improvement campaigns. They live in the worlds of six-sigma and TQM, downsizing and reengineering. The Fixer’s idea of the future often looks like the past, only without all the imperfections. Fixers are determinists—they like to control events—and they put a great deal of energy into eliminating deviations from expected performance.
Furthermore, Fixers like to see themselves as realists, practical people. They like to quantify things and feel there is an objective, measurable reality that may be apart from how some people perceive (or misperceive) the world. They deal with events as they come. The status quo is something they usually accept and try hard to work with, though they may feel at times skeptical or cynical about it. Sometimes they feel resigned to “muddle through” difficult situations, knowing that at best their efforts are likely to produce only incremental change. Fixers like to keep up with the latest management trends. They benchmark a lot, and are diligent seminar goers, constantly looking for new techniques that show promise to improve the working of the business.
Fixers think linearly—their world is one of proximate causes and immediate effects. Fixers often feel uncomfortable in times of chaotic change. They are more content when all going on around them seems well under control. Future happenings, from their perspective, are largely determined by what has already occurred. They predict the future by looking at the past, always trying hard to stay keenly aware of the trends that are driving today’s marketplace.
The Grower Mindset
The Grower’s model of the future is quite different. For them, it is not fixed or predetermined. Marketplaces, they believe, are constantly in motion, fundamentally open to new influences and full of possibilities. Yesterday’s story does not have to be tomorrow’s, they will argue. They are good at listening for what seems to want to happen next in the market. Growers believe that few trends keep going forever, and that small discontinuities in established patterns may be all that is needed to change entire industries. They relish discovering, or creating, these discontinuities. Then they make plans to take advantage of what is about to happen. For them, opportunities are abundant to create something new, and they are always alert for serendipitous events that can provide leverage for their plans.
Growers have a similar perspective about the organizations in which they work. They value their ability to discover openings and leverage points in these structures. They believe that many internal rigidities and conflicts are rooted in misperceptions, which are correctable. Change, Growers maintain, can arise from inside the organization. It does not always need to be imposed externally.
Different Goals; Contrasting Worldviews
Fixers and Growers inhabit the same world but have contrasting assumptions about how to operate in it. Fixers are great problem solvers; they are good at making something go away. Success happens for them when the problem has disappeared. Growers focus more on what they want, rather than what they do not. They are opportunity-seizers more than problem-crushers. Success for a Grower is the presence, not the absence, of a result. Growers are able to visualize an end result of their efforts, something that is hard to do with a Fixer’s goal such as “zero defects.” Taking action to bring something new into being—the process of creation—is the standard operating mode of growers. They want to go beyond what is now, rather than restore or perfect it. Growers are more concerned with “next practices” than best practices. Many Fixer activities are directed internally and deal with things that have already happened. Growers direct their attention outside the organization and keep it more forward focused.
Growers have a conviction that they can shape their own destiny, while Fixers are more inclined to see themselves on the receiving end of circumstances outside their control. One is proactive, the other reactive. Fixers' environment provides the stimuli for their actions, as they react against or respond to their circumstances. Growers are more internally energized by what they want to bring into reality—what they want to add to their circumstances rather than take away.
Have a conversation with a Fixer and soon you will notice much of the discussion revolves around tactics, techniques and technology. Mention the future and you will soon hear the Fixer’s thoughts about forecasts and predictions. Discuss the same issues with a Grower and you will find less said about what is likely to be and the mechanics needed to bring it about, and more about alternative ways that things might work out and what would be required for each to occur. Growers like being on the initiating and the shaping end of change. They believe the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
“Fixer” and “Grower” are labels for mindsets, not people. But people are the creators and carriers of a mindset. Jack Welch frequently favored the Fixer mentality. His successor at GE, Jeffrey Immelt, is more of a Grower. Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn is a switch-hitter.
Are Growers Better Than Fixers?
Keep in mind what we have been talking about are mindsets—sets of assumptions or ways of thinking. Do you prefer to think like a Fixer or a Grower? Or both? Which mindset do you most commonly operate from? There is no right or wrong mindset: it all depends on what you want to accomplish. Ferreting out what is wrong and eliminating it is enabled by the vigilant mood of the Fixer. The Grower’s more positive and spirited approach helps identify what is right in a situation and how to build on it. Shifting mindsets requires discerning which one is governing your actions, standing back from it and critically assessing how appropriate it is for your aims; finally, it requires the courage to think differently about how the world seems to work. Organizations that successfully adapt to changes in their surroundings are the ones that know how to rally this kind of courage. I hope yours is among them.
This article is adapted from Chapter 4 of the new book Bigger Isn’t Always Better: The New Mindset for Real Business Growth by Robert M. Tomasko. Copyright 2006, Robert M. Tomasko. Published by AMACOM, AMA's book division.
About the Author(s)
Robert M. Tomasko is a specialist in organizational effectiveness and has advised companies, including Coca-Cola, Marriott and Toyota. He is a frequent speaker.