Mental Models – Thinking About Thinking

Let’s shift gears away from shared vision (“FINALLY!”) and talk about a different topic.  Hold the enthusiasm, pal.  It’s still related to shared vision*–mainly what stands in our way of achieving that vision, for ourselves and in our workplaces

As a disclaimer, this post is long and will be something of a 30,000 foot overview of mental models, so the focus will be more abstract than practical and concrete (“SHOCKING!”).

Short Version

If we’re serious about wanting to make changes to improve our lives and workplaces, we need to understand what mental models are, what influence they have on our thinking and behavior, and how to work with them.

Mental models are the beliefs, assumptions, and generalizations about the things that we carry in our head and that shape how we see the world like a pair of eyeglasses.  Since they operate under the surface, we don’t normally see them and their effects.

We wind up as prisoners of these models when we aren’t able to see and work with them because we can’t see that our mental models are always incomplete and inaccurate and often unhelpful.  These unhelpful mental models can be the source of the difficulty we face in trying to accomplish our vision and trying to do the things that we say we believe in and that we want to do as individuals and as an organization.

Long Version

Why Is It so Hard to Fix these Damn Gaps?

When discussing shared vision, we talked about the gap between current reality and our aspirations (what we want to be and do).  But we didn’t discuss what causes those gaps or how identifying a gap can help uncover a hidden problem we face in our personal and organizational lives.

You see, when we invest the effort to identify what we want, and when we’re honest with ourselves about current reality, our reward is that we come face to face with what can feel like an insurmountable barrier.  And I’m not talking about the gap itself.

The gap is certainly a problem, but it’s not the REAL problem.  The gap may just be a symptom of the real issue we’re facing.  Since it’s only a symptom, focusing exclusively on closing the gap may not get us what we want.  The bigger, thornier, trickier problem, the real underlying issue, is actually this: our inability to close the gap in spite of our best efforts and best intentions.  The problem is that we can’t make the changes we want to make.

I’m going to suggest that the roots of this issue may not lie in our skills and abilities.  We may know what we need to do to close the gap, and we may even be able to do those things, yet we may still find that the changes necessary to actually close the gap just don’t happen.  With some of our most important challenges, we need to go deeper and do some thinking about our thinking before we can get the results we want.  Specifically, we need to work on something called a mental model.

What Is a Mental Model?

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge describes mental models as “deeply held internal images”–typically assumptions or generalizations–“of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.”

A common metaphor for mental models is the eyeglass lens.  Like eyeglasses, we see the world through our mental models.  They are how we make sense of our experiences and ourselves.  We always think we’re viewing “reality”–we think that what we see is the way things really are–but understanding the nature and role of mental models reveals that we can only ever see the world as shaped by our mental models.

For instance, if we put on a different eyeglass prescription, we’ll experience a different visual image of the world around us.  This happens even though “the way the world is” hasn’t changed, only our lens, and therefore what our mind sees, has changed.  Similarly, if we revise our mental models, we’ll perceive and therefore understand and relate to reality differently.

Some of these mental models may simply be a generalization such as, “accountants are boring” or “Brad doesn’t like me.”  Other mental models may be more complex theories and may include something like assumptions about what kind of workplace we’re in or what our clients want and why they interact with us the way they do.

Another key feature of mental models is that they are almost always “implicit.”  This means that they’re not out in the open.  They operate below the surface of our conscious mind.  We don’t normally see them, don’t even realize that they’re there, and don’t recognize the effect that they have on our thinking and behavior.

In spite of some of the issues we’re going to discuss, which may make mental models sound like a real pain in the butt, it’s important to appreciate the valuable role of mental models in our lives–they’re indispensable.  We couldn’t function without them.  This is because the world–even a single human being–is too complex for us to understand fully.  Mental models address this complexity by simplifying the world into something manageable.  They help us make sense of the things we experience, providing order and meaning so that we can get out of bed (at least on most days).

Why Should I Care About Mental Models?  Seriously, Why Should I Care?

At this point, you might be thinking, “This is even more impractical than the vision stuff!”  But here’s the thing: it’s not just a fancy-but-useless theoretical idea.  The concept takes on real, practical significance when we recognize that our thinking produces our actions and that our actions produce outcomes, or, as The Fifth Discipline puts it, “mental models are active–they shape how we act.”

Like we discussed at the beginning of this post, we have all experienced frustration when we can’t make effective and lasting change in our actions in the ways that we say we want to.  To reiterate, we feel forever stuck with the gap between what we say we want and what we believe in and what we actually do.  Mental models help shed light on this phenomenon.

The key thing to recognize is that while we don’t always act congruent with what we say we want, we ALWAYS act congruent with our mental model.  So when we say we want something or believe in something that’s inconsistent with our mental model, we can be assured that our mental model will always win.  And conversely, when we can’t seem to do what we say we want to, that’s a good sign that the cause and the best route to a solution lie in our mental models.

Understanding this helps us see the importance of mental models in any change process.  So, to answer your totally legitimate question, you should care about mental models because, unless and until we address the thinking that is at the root of our actions, we’ll most likely find it impossible to actually make the changes we say we want to make in our lives and our organizations.

Some other points about mental models are also worth noting.

One is that they’re “implicit,” as we discussed.  Because they’re implicit, we don’t notice, with respect to our accountant mental models from earlier, the leap that we made between observing specific accountants acting in specific ways at specific times and the generalization that we then drew about all accountants being boring.  Once formed, these models color and shape what we see, how we see it, and how we react to what we see.  And we don’t even realize it.

Even more troubling, our accountant co-worker may be fairly engaging by some objective standard, but we’ll be less likely to notice things that may support that conclusion and may be less likely to give him the chance to prove it because of our “accountants are boring” mental model.  So we become more or less immune to information that’s inconsistent with our mental model.

Furthermore, since one person’s mental models differ from another’s, this helps explain why two people can share an experience yet perceive, understand, interpret, describe, and react to it so differently.  Many conflicts and communication problems can be traced to these inconsistent mental models.  It can seem like we’re operating in different worlds, and in a very real sense we are.  Mental models help explain how that can be.

Ok, Now that I Care, What Do We Do About This?

As mentioned before, mental models serve an important function, and we couldn’t live without them.  They’re not the enemy.  They’re not a problem to be solved.

The problems we experience arise because these invisible mental models, whatever they are, effectively run our lives in important ways.  For practical purposes, we’re basically prisoners of our mental models and don’t even realize it.  We’re prisoners because (a) we’re not choosing them and (b) we’re bound by the consequences that flow into our lives because of them.  We’re stuck in the sense that, as mentioned above, we really don’t have the option of acting in ways that may contradict them.

Beyond this, the even more practical problem with mental models is the one we keep returning to: some of them simply aren’t very helpful.  While the benefit of mental models is that they’re simplifying, the cost is that they’re limiting.  So we often end up with models that prevent us from, or at the very least don’t help us, do the things we say we want to do in our lives and workplaces.

In terms of unhelpfulness (not a real word), some of them are merely incomplete.  Some are almost entirely wrong.  Some are partially valid but apply only in limited situations.  Some are outdated ideas we picked up in childhood that need to be left behind.  Some serve mainly to protect us from a perceived threat but produce dysfunctional results.

But again, the answer isn’t to get rid of our mental models.  That’s impossible.  What we need is to somehow figure out how to make them more functional and less dysfunctional, to make them serve us better.

To make our mental models more functional, we have to bring them to the surface, test their accuracy and completeness and applicability, and improve them as necessary.  We need to be able to refine them in order to make them more consistent with current reality–more accurate, complete, and applicable to our situation.  Doing this requires a combination of individual skills and practices as well as organizational systems and structures that support the use of these skills.

The Fifth Discipline refers to these key individual skills as reflection and inquiry.  Reflection is mainly an intrapersonal skill.  It’s about becoming more aware of our mental models, including how they form and the ways they influence our actions.  Inquiry is mainly an interpersonal skill.  It is involves how we interact with other people in order to better understand each other.

Application of these skills involves asking questions such as:

  • What important thing am I not admitting that I really don’t know about this situation?
  • What do I believe or assume about how people/the world works in this situation (likely connected to what we don’t know)?
  • In what ways is this belief or assumption likely accurate?
  • In what ways does this belief or assumption help us?
  • In what ways might this belief be inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading?
  • In what ways might this belief or assumption be limiting and/or unhelpful?
  • How could I run a test to see whether this belief accurately and completely reflects the real world right now?

This Mental Models Business Sounds Like Kind of a Rabbit Hole.

Yep.  But an important one.

That was a long one.  Thanks for sticking around.  In future posts, we’ll bring in some more concrete examples to try and make the idea more tangible and better illustrate the concept’s connections to real life and to enhancing the quality of our workplaces.

In closing, I’ll invite you to consider these questions about working with mental models:

  • What kinds of systems and structures would you need to have in place in your workplace in order to regularly think about these kinds of questions and examine our mental models?
  • What kind of changes would you need to make in your workplace to be able to do that?
  • What would your workplace need to be like for that to happen?
  • Do you think it would be beneficial to make those changes?  In what ways?

*I’m just going to keep on including this disclaimer: Feel free to use the term goal, objective, ambition, target, destination, desire, target, etc.–something reflecting a desired future state.


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