Reframing Mindset to Help Build Better Leaders with Roberto Verganti

Roberto Verganti is Professor of Leadership and Innovation at the Stockholm School of Economics, and Design Theory and Practice at the Harvard Business School. Roberto firmly believes that reframing is the most advanced leadership skill leaders can possess. But what is reframing?

7 min read


Episode 10

“Reframing is one of the most advanced practices of our mind when we address a problem. In reality, we always use a frame of focus. It’s very important because it helps us to focus on what is relevant and filter out what is not relevant, which otherwise becomes too complicated to make a decision.”

Innovators are at risk of ridiculed

The problem is, says Roberto, too often innovators and pioneers are at risk of being the laughing stock in the community, because they’re ahead of the curve with their ideas. Take Summa Equity for example, says Reynir, when he first started exploring sustainable investing, people said he was mad. Now, you can’t invest, or run a business without taking sustainability into consideration.

“I’m amazed at how the world has changed since 2016, over the last few years, and how suddenly it seems like the investment community is starting to reframe. Suddenly sustainability has to be a core part of the equation, it can’t be ignored anymore, comments Reynir Indahl”

This, says Roberto, is a classic pattern of reframing. When you first reframe, and you’re the first one to do it, people believe you’re crazy, which is why reframing is so complicated. Because at the beginning, when you’re pushing against so many closed doors, you doubt yourself. And even if you reframe for yourself, the second challenge is to then get other people to see things the way you do.

Why it’s hard to reframe when you’re successful

So what makes reframing so hard? Because you’re busting myths, says Roberto. Plus, the more successful you are, the harder it is to bring about change – it’s the old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Which is why, says Roberto, reframing is the quintessential task of leaders. Leaders by definition are where they are because they have been successful at what they once did. But in order to move beyond where they currently are, they need to unlearn what took them this far. What took you to the position of being a leader is not what you need to progress, if you are to be a leader in a changing world.

"The myth of our own success prevents us from [moving further] because we believe we have the answer. But the answer is always good for the past, not for the future.”

The space of resonance

As a leader, when you see something you like, that’s easy. When you see something you don’t like, that’s also easy, says Roberto. But that’s not reframing. You only start to reframe when you are in the space in between what you like and what you don’t like. This, says Roberto, is the space of resonance.

“If you work in an art gallery, there are clearly some pieces of art that you like. And there are clearly some pieces of art you don’t like. But then there is something that stopped you and you don’t know why. So you start feeling there is something that is talking to you. And you need to follow that, which is the space in between.”

People follow people, not ideas

How do you get into this in between spaces at work? There have been a lot of studies on this, says Roberto, and the resounding theory is that people don’t follow an idea, they follow a person. When you connect with someone, in the moment, you willingly enter into new spaces, when you do new things not because you’ve found a new idea, but because you’ve found a new person that leads you into places where you never normally go.

“Think about your life, how many times you’ve been doing things you could never believe you will do just because of love. Love is one of the most powerful reframers. Sometimes you reframe when you find a new person, and you don’t know why but you just follow that person, because you just want to be close to that person. And then you end up in new spaces.”

Too often, leaders are led to believe that the best leaders are the ones who know everything, but we know this is just a myth. The best leaders are the ones who say ‘I don’t know, but I’m curious to find out’.

Why connect reframing to innovation

Why is it important to reframe as leaders in business? Because, says Roberto, people fall in love not because something works better, but rather people fall in love for something that is meaningful.

At the level of leadership in business, this type of reframing is known as innovation. And, says Roberto, there are two levels of innovation:

  1. There is one where we solve a problem for the better,
  1. The second is where you stop and reflect on what you can do to make meaning for people using your product.

This second level requires reframing, or, in more familiar parlance, it’s a search for purpose.

And the companies that do this so well, says Roberto, sometimes we forget that they’re a business because what they do, the product or service they do, they bring so much meaning to people.

How can you engage your whole organization in the reframing process, the innovation process? Engagement is one of the biggest challenges, says Roberto, especially in this new world where we want innovation to come from the bottom up, not just the top down, or at least in collaboration, and achieving this is very challenging.

“Every leader in his small team and his small group needs to find the meaning of what we do. Every team eventually delivers something, even if you’re in accounting, you’re delivering a performance report, and it needs to be meaningful. It is a job at every single level. It should be a mindset that is spread all around the organization.”

Sustainability as a gift

Sustainability should be a burden on the innovator, not on the customers, nor on the profitability of the business. People shouldn’t have to make sacrifices to choose the sustainable option. The innovators need to make the mental sacrifice of being more innovative. If you approach things in this way, says Roberto, this is the real reframe. We will never succeed with sustainability by asking others to make sacrifices.

“What we are trying to do now in our studies is [understand] how we can develop a more systemic thinking approach to innovation, in which you don’t innovate only for the user, you innovate for an ecosystem of users, stakeholders, places, nature, things.”

How to design your life’s work

What is Roberto’s advice for the next generation just starting out in the world of work? Don’t look at the current job market to decide what you want to do with your life, says Roberto, the jobs’ market is changing so rapidly, it will be a very different place even in the next three years. And if you really like doing something, keep it as a hobby, especially if it’s fun, don’t compromise – you need pleasure in your life.

If you can, find work that gives you meaning as a person. That work doesn’t have to be pleasurable, because there will be a lot of pain in your profession, instead, choose what gives you passion. Passion comes from the Latin patior, which means to suffer.

“I was not ready to suffer for the guitar, because it was just a pleasure. But I’m ready to suffer for teaching because the idea of helping young people grow up gives me meaning. So that’s a little bit of a criteria to choose what to do. Find something that gives you meaning and you’re ready to suffer from that.”


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