Applying Mental Models

Let me start by saying that you’re completely right–that last article on mental models was pretty abstract.  Let’s try a different approach this time and take a crack at making the idea more concrete.  We’ll consider how mental models might actually apply to our lives and work with a few examples.

At the risk of creating some kind of Inception scenario (mental models of mental models of mental models), I want to share my own experience with the idea.  I may not be typical, and you’re an intelligent reader, so you definitely don’t need to take my word for it, but it seems like once I became familiar with the concept of mental models I started seeing the idea in a lot of materials that I was reading.

To consider how the concept can be applied, let’s check out three different sources that discuss mental models in different real life scenarios.  One example involves conflict resolution and communication, one is from research on married couples, and the last is from an expert on business innovation.

Mental Models and Crucial Conversations

Although the authors don’t use the term mental model, the books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability present a framework for communication and interpersonal relationships.  Their approach is based on the principle that we can handle our interactions with others more skillfully when we learn to identify and work with the mental models we hold of other people.  This idea can also be found in a number of other works on interpersonal relationships.

These authors recognize a few key points while presenting their framework: One is that relationships are dynamic human systems.  Nothing in a relationship can ever be taken in isolation.  In that system, one party’s behavior is always influenced by and always has an effect on the other party’s behavior.  Another is that our thinking, including our beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes about the other party and about the nature of the relationship, shapes how we behave in the relationship and how we treat the other party.

The authors of Crucial Conversations present this principle of working on our mental models in a couple interesting ways.  One is the recommendation to “Start with Heart.”  This step is based on the idea that a prerequisite to handling difficult interactions well is to clarify what is most important to us in the situation.  Essentially, the recommend that we clarify our mental model regarding the purpose of the interaction.  This involves working with mental models at a fairly high level.  The authors recognize that it’s possible to approach an interaction from the standpoint that our goal is to win, to save face, to prove a point, to punish the other, or to protect ourself at all cost.  The main takeaway is that intentions are not likely to produce a positive outcome for either party when we go in with this mindset.  The problem, when we accept one of these purposes (which usually happens implicitly) as our objective, is that we will tend to behave in certain ways.  And the behaviors that we’ll use to accomplish those purposes are not the kinds of behaviors that are consistent with healthy, happy, mutually beneficial interpersonal relationships.

However, it’s often the case in these challenging interactions that we’re dealing with someone with whom we have an ongoing relationship that’s important to preserve and that we hold values that go beyond and run deeper than our initial ideas of what we want to accomplish in the interaction.  When we follow the advice to slow down and reflect on these deeper values and what we really want for ourselves, for the other person, and for the relationship, we’re able to change our mental model of the purpose of the interaction.  Clarifying and focusing our thinking in this way puts us in a mindset that enables us to look for ways to handle the interaction in a manner more likely to accomplish that purpose.  (This slowing down may also help us to see that, even though we may have always claimed to hold this purpose and intent and these values, we were not initially operating in a way that was consistent with our claims.)

The next key point in the Crucial Conversation framework relevant to mental models involves the tool called “Master My Stories.”  The story framework that the authors use is really an application of the mental model concept.  The idea of stories used in these books recognizes that (a) we observe the world and filter what we observe through the lens of our mental models; (b) this filtering is a process of interpretation that produces a story that we tell about what we observed; (c) the story we tell produces an emotional response in us; and (d) we then act on the basis of the resulting story and emotion, not on the objective nature of what was initially observed.  The authors do a wonderful job of illustrating how we can begin to recognize this process, recognize that our default stories/mental models often aren’t accurate or useful, and work with this recognition in productive ways.  They offer skills to help us investigate the situation more carefully and to tentatively test our preconceived story/mental model in order to construct a new story (a new mental model of the situation, including the other person) that is more complete, more accurate, and more conducive to having a mature, constructive conversation.

Mental Models and Marriage Research

I recently came across an article (here) about some really interesting long term research that has been done on married couples.  The key point of this article was to show the important role of kindness in the long term success of marriages.  The term mental models wasn’t used at all in the article, and I’m not aware that it’s used in the research findings, but consider this passage from the article [including the commentary I insert to heavy-handedly make my point]:

“One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions [Have a mental model that assumes the other person’s good intentions as a default unless clearly proven otherwise.]. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters [People with very unhappy marriages.] see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there [They have a mental model that consistently produces negative interpretations of situations that aren’t objectively negative.]. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her [She has a mental model of her husband as a person who is inconsiderate, doesn’t respect her, and intends to cause her distress.]. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down [Her mental model of her husband may be inaccurate, but she can’t see that part of the situation.].

Or say a wife is running late to dinner (again), and the husband assumes that she doesn’t value him enough to show up to their date on time [He has experienced prior situations where she is late. Those situations have been used to construct a mental model of his wife as an inconsiderate person who doesn’t respect his time and efforts.] after he took the trouble to make a reservation and leave work early so that they could spend a romantic evening together.  But it turns out that the wife was running late because she stopped by a store to pick him up a gift for their special night out [His mental model of his wife as applied to this situation was inaccurate and incomplete.  The only objective information he had about the situation was that she was late and that she had been late in the past.  The rest, including his interpretation of the situation, the story he told about the kind of person she was and about her character and attitude and intent, was all a product of his mental model.]. Imagine her joining him for dinner, excited to deliver her gift, only to realize that he’s in a sour mood because he misinterpreted what was motivating her behavior [The problem is that his mental model, besides being objectively inaccurate and incomplete, was unhelpful because it produced in him a negative emotional state, which led to unkind behavior towards his wife, which contributed to an unnecessarily negative interaction.]. The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably [Having mental models that don’t automatically assume negative intent and bad character in others.] can soften the sharp edge of conflict.”

The mental models we hold even influence what we are able to see.  According to John Gottman, one of the primary researchers, “’There’s a habit of mind that the masters [people with strong, happy marriages] have, . . . which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for.  They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.  Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.’”  In fact, they discovered that “[p]eople who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.”  The thing that interests me the most about these statements is that research has shown that our mental models are not simply a matter of how we respond to what’s “out there” in our environment.  Our models actually influence what we are able or willing to see.  They determine what information we perceive in the world around us.  People with negative mental models can’t even see the positive things that the researchers observe in their marital interactions!

The point I draw from the article in order to support the narrow point I want to make here is this: The success of our relationships is determined largely by the behavior of the individuals in that relationship (again, relationships are dynamic systems).  By closely observing couples interacting with each other, the researchers were able to identify specific, tangible behaviors (many of which were fairly subtle but real nonetheless) and correlate those behaviors to the long term health and success of those relationships.  And those behaviors, it turns out, are the products of the individuals’ mental models.  The behaviors result from the way the individuals think about their relationship and about the other person–what they believe about the kind of person they’re with, what they assume about the other person, how they interpret the other person’s behavior, the intentions they attribute to the other person.  One key, it seems, to addressing some of the behavior that enables or precludes a healthy marriage, lies largely in the minds of the individuals.

Mental Models and Innovation

The capacity to work with mental models is also a popular idea among authors who study and write about innovation–the process of developing and implementing creative new ideas.

Richard Martin is a consultant and author who has written a lot about innovation, especially about the kind of thinking that produces innovation.  Unlike the earlier examples, Martin actually uses the term mental models in his work.  To grossly oversimplify things, the basic premise of his book The Opposable Mind is that people in a given company and in a given industry tend to see the world in a particular way.  These viewpoints collectively form a set of mental models about their world that have been validated and proven successful over time (that’s why the market exists and why the current companies are alive to operate in it the way they do).  Most people, however, tend to confuse their models of reality with reality itself and therefore tend to dismiss any information that would bring the preferred model into question as the best or only model.  This approach to the world inhibits the ability to find innovative solutions to problems.

Martin contrasts this typical stance with a skill he refers to as “integrative thinking,” which he identifies as a key to innovators’ ability to come up with new and creative solutions.  He defines integrative thinking as “[t]he ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”  For these kinds of thinkers, “[i]t’s not a choice of this model or that model.  They’re all wrong.”  The goal therefore becomes “to combine those multiple perspectives and enhance the quality of your mental model.”  With this approach, they tend to treat opposing models as hypotheses of how the world works, not the truth of what actually is.  This strikes me as extremely humble, extremely pragmatic, yet extremely confident and hopeful approach to life.

As we’ve discussed, we have to create mental models in order to simplify the world into something that makes sense–there’s no way around this.  Integrative thinkers, however, tend to find innovative opportunities by creating mental models that account for a bit more of the complexity that’s actually present in the world.  They typically do this by taking a larger view of what information is relevant to the issue and by being able to see more of the complexity in how cause and effect works as the various factors interact and influence each other.

These innovators are able to do all this because they have a different relationship to their mental models than most of us.  Rather than carry on with what tends to be the default approach of most people (arguing for their model and defending it against attack by others with different models), integrative thinkers actually assume that their current mental model is inaccurate and incomplete in important respects.  Because of this, they purposely seek out contrary information because they believe that they are capable of producing a more accurate and more complete (though still inaccurate and incomplete) model.

The Opposable Mind offers a number of case studies to illustrate these points.  One of the main case studies involves the origin of The Four Seasons hotel chain.  When the founder, Isadore Sharp, entered the hotel business, the people in the industry shared a mental model that the only two business model options were smallish motels or large hotels that catered to business travelers.  The problem was that the smaller motels offered a personal touch that guests enjoyed but, because of their small size and the room rates they charged, could not provide business travelers with the amenities they desired.  The large hotels, on the other hand, could provide those amenities, but their large size made them extremely impersonal, which produced a less enjoyable experience for guests.  Sharp was able to question the assumptions and beliefs about the hospitality industry that everyone else took as reality and was able to develop a new mental model of what was possible in that business.  Sharp held the apparently irreconcilable tension created by recognizing the respective advantages of the two types of hotels and did research that allowed him to understand the needs of guests in a new and unique way.  By doing this, he was able to create a new hotel business model.  The Four Seasons’ model has proven extremely successful.  According to Martin, it has been successful because it uniquely satisfies customers’ needs that the other established companies could not see or serve because their mental models blinded them to recognizing that opportunity.

How Does It Apply to Us?

When things are going well in our workplaces we can typically find examples of when we’ve been open enough to question our mental models, when we’ve experimented and come up with new ways to do things.

We may not have used the terminology of mental models.  More likely it was just changing our minds or seeing things differently or learning.  But whatever we call it, it’s the kind of thing we do when we’re at our best, when we do things like handle difficult interpersonal interactions with skill and grace and character, when we do things like build and maintain high quality relationships with our clients and customers, when we aren’t afraid to innovate, to experiment, to change and improve and grow.  It’s part of what we need to do to be successful and maintain a high quality workplace.  Perhaps developing a mental model of the way mental models work can help us do this even more skillfully and more effectively.

How do you think mental models relate to what you do and how you do it in your workplace?  Can you recognize situations when your mental model of someone affected the quality of your interactions and your relationship?  Can you think of an example of a time that you benefitted from reexamining a mental model?  Can you think of one you could benefit from reexamining now?


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.