David Westfall currently is the senior director of Decision Support and Innovation, a team working on the next generation of solutions and products at Aon-Hewitt. Prior to his role at Aon-Hewitt, David has held leadership roles in innovation and business in diverse industries such as online and academic education, healthcare, research and technology. David’s passion is to approach innovation from an intrepreneurial perspective, leading large and medium sized companies to develop new value opportunities within their corporate structure. And to think disruptively.


Christopher Skroupa: Our last discussion centered on the importance of information flow and what types of information drive the most value for a firm, as well as how striking the right balance between internal process and experimentation is critical. But you also mentioned the importance of empowering teams at the grass roots level. Does this mean a firm should look for a particular type of skillset or talent?

David Westfall: The short answer is a qualified yes. Skillset is obviously important and you want to make sure that the person you are considering has the training and talent necessary to perform the job you are looking for them to do. However, there is a critical aspect here to consider when applying this to roles that require innovative thinking. This aspect is around the approach, style or what many call mindset that the individual has and will bring to the role. In fact, I would argue that when considering skillset vs. mindset, in many cases we say we want the latter but only screen the former. In the case of innovation, the ability to adapt, use intuition, recover from a setback and essentially deal with the potential “unknown” is all about mindset and has very little to do with skillset. In the case of innovation, having the right mindset is the key.

Skroupa: What is the biggest distinguishing difference between a mindset and a skillset in the context of hiring talent?

Westfall: At its core, a skillset is something you can be taught or trained. Often many factors play into your ability to master a particular skill. For example, I will never be a NBA star no matter how much I practice. But to a general sense, most skills can be obtained over time with enough practice and dedication. Mindset is a different animal. There is a great deal of research on what a mindset is and I have personally found that the work done by Paul Stoltz on Adversity to be incredibly insightful. He explains how one’s mindset and ability to deal with adversity plays an enormous part in how individuals can cope with one simple fact – that things change – and not necessarily how we thought they would (that high entropy information thing again we talked about last time!). If I were to make a humble attempt at summarizing the definition of “mindset,” I would state it as essentially the core being of the person. It is their beliefs, their understandings, accepted norms, paradigms and approach to life in general. It is often what makes them who they are. And, it is something that does not necessarily change quickly, if at all. In contract, at its core, a skillset is something that can be taught or trained. Some are more naturally skilled at certain things than others, but in general, this principal will hold true. While I will never be an NBA basketball star, I can still shoot a few hoops!

Skroupa: How does one then shift this emphasis from skillset to mindset in the hiring practice?

Westfall: If you were to ask most leaders what they would value the most – someone having the right skills or someone have the right mindset – I bet most answers would be similar to, “Well mindset, of course!” But if we were to examine closely the types of questions and interactions people have during the interview process itself, I believe we see the interviewing efforts are more aligned with determining the skillset of the person and have very fleeting glimpses into the real mindset of the individual. This is only natural because it is much easier to assess skills than mindset, but we need to realize it and really assess the mindset of an individual. If a leader or organization is serious about innovation and is looking for talent to drive this effort, either internally or externally, then it is critical that the focus be on those who demonstrate the natural mindset to think disruptively.

Skroupa: Can you explain the meaning of “thinking disruptively” and how organizations may apply the concept?

Westfall: Disruptive thinking is simply a willingness to be agile and open to the most powerful force in nature – change. Surprising information is the most valuable form of information. But the key assumption around being able to harvest that information for value is the ability of people to interpret and act on that information. In order to do that, the people most adapted to do this are people who do this disruptively. This is where mindset plays a big role. Similar to disruptive innovation – accepted norms, paradigms and beliefs are questioned. What is true today may not necessarily be true tomorrow. In fact, if you cling too much to what you know from the past, you will likely inhibit your ability to move forward. Disruptive thinking is similar – your ability to see past the accepted norms, paradigms and beliefs of what is true today is the key.

A disruptive thinker tends to naturally seek out information that is, by its nature, high entropy or surprising – the most valuable type of information. And a very important point to make here is that a disruptive thinker does not try to force this high entropy information into accepted norms or political necessities; instead they see it for what it is. This allows disruptive thinkers to make connections and correlations between seemingly meaningless or disconnected high entropy information. Or put another way, because a disruptive thinker seeks out high entropy information, accepting it for what it is, and adapting quickly to it, they are in turn able to derive new or more value from that information at a faster pace. Further, this effect can be amplified by combining disruptive thinkers together into what I call Diversity of Mindset.

Skroupa: Can you describe Diversity of Mindset further?

Westfall: While individuals who think disruptively can make often unexpected connections through the high entropy information they look for, any one individual is still limited by the frame of experiences they have. If you combine these individuals with other individuals from other backgrounds who also think disruptively, then the individual connections made can be combined between the individuals to make even more insightful connections. Again, because people who think disruptively are already accustomed to accepting high entropy information, they are more willing and able to accept information from an outside experience or perspective from their background.

By expanding the experience and background beyond that of a firm or industry, the amount of high entropy information available is vastly increased. And because these individuals naturally look at high entropy information as opportunity, they are more likely to accept information from backgrounds outside of their traditional knowledge and experience. This is what I mean by Diversity of Mindset. If a firm is looking to create an innovation effort, a team diverse mindset members is very important. Further, if what you are looking to do is challenge not only your own firm’s paradigms, but also the paradigms of your industry or profession, this becomes a critical requirement.

Skroupa: How does one put Diversity of Mindset into practice?

Westfall: The ability to put in a diversity of mindset group of disruptive thinkers is ultimately the role of leadership. As a leader of your firm or organization, you will need to seek out these different thinkers across a broader range of experiences than what is the typical “norm” of your group or firm. The further you stretch beyond your firm’s normal skillsets and backgrounds, the more diverse your team’s mindset will be. As a leader, you will also need to be willing to be that executive sponsor who can provide the shelter and leadership necessary to protect your team from those who insist, “This is not how we do things here,” or “Not invented here.” The final and perhaps most difficult challenge will be the battle you as a leader will have with yourself. This team is going to challenge you and your norms, paradigms and biases. Are you ready to change yourself and your perspectives? Be honest. If you start to waiver, you will most certainly weaken your ability to shelter the team. And remember, this team has an uncanny ability to see and understand information, so I can assure any leader that your team of disruptive thinkers will most certainly see you are wavering. So I ask any leader: “Are you ready to stand the heat?” If you are, then you may just be on the most ground breaking, exciting journey of your career!


On September 17, 2015, Skytop Strategies will present “Talent: Leveraging the Human Factor in Building Response Capacity” hosted in Chicago. Come join David Westfall and business executives, institutional investors and practice leaders in continuing the discussion on skillset versus mindset and how talent contributes to company resilience at this full-day symposium. To inquire about attending, contact Jon Scorcia at jscorcia@skytopstrategies.com.