Mental Models

Lisa R. Arcemont

Are you aware of your Mental Models? You might be asking, “What are mental models?” The term “mental model” is much like the concept of paradigm-a set of ideas and practices that shape the ways people view and interact with the world. Our mental models have a lot to do with how we view ourselves, others and the world around us….and the process of how we develop those views every day. Much of what we think about ourselves, others and our surroundings was developed long ago in our upbringing when we were children and continues to develop as we grow into adulthood as we go through a series of life experiences. It is when we experience daily events and interactions with others and reflect back upon these events and relationships that we become aware of attitudes and perceptions that influence how we think, interact and react to these life experiences. These attitudes and perceptions about how things are or should be are our mental models.  By continually reflecting upon, talking about, and reconsidering these internal pictures of how we view the world, we can gain more capability in governing our own actions and decisions.

While mental models are characteristic of attitudes and perceptions of individuals, they certainly affect an organization’s ability to adapt, grow, and try new things. Most organizations’ executives and leaders want their organization to be able to adapt to change and are diligent to reduce or eliminate the paradigm blindness plaguing their organizations. They realize that traditional, hierarchical, authoritarian organizations tend to be slow to adapt. Even if members perceive environmental changes, they have a hard time motivating themselves to take action. They tend to change only in times of crisis, when there is rarely enough time to adapt significantly.

Studies show that Fortune 500 companies survive somewhere between thirty and forty years. Clearly, adaptability is a fundamental, long-term issue. And yet, most large successful organizations show very little evidence of being highly adaptable. Adaptation is essential in an organization learning how to change. The only people who ignore it are those who are not concerned whether their organization will be around in ten years.

For organizations to survive in these changing times, they must first revise mental models of the company, it market or clientele, and its competitors. Often times, organizations direct their attention to a specific domain of work to narrow their focus rather than look at everything in order to take effective action. That focus allows management to focus on the evolution of the mental models that are incorporated in the minds and behaviors of people who need one another to take effective action. The same approach can be taken in any organization. The effort to improve mental models can be focused in many ways, based on the needs of the organization.

Second, they must also plan for future conditions with scenario planning as an essential tool to changing mental models. Changing the way people think and feel will not happen overnight. Managers and leaders will have to work long and hard to put into practice structures that challenge and continually improve the mental models of all members on all levels. .

One such tool is a process that creates hypothetical alternative futures. Rather than looking toward the future as if there is only one possibility, scenario planners imagine and define multiple alternatives. The Shell Oil Corporation is well known for its pioneering work in scenario planning that started doing it in the late 1960s. Initially, they recognized no connection between scenario planning and changing mental models, but slowly discovered the connection through trial and error. Initially, managers were presented different scenarios worldwide, throughout the company, but little buy-in occurred. After over a decade of trial and failure, scenario planners suddenly understood that the reason the managers did not take the scenario seriously was because it described a world that was inconsistent with their experience. They had no mental model for turbulence and unpredictability, for market controlled by the sellers. Their way of thinking about the world was so embedded in their experiences that they could not comprehend the scenario. That is when the scenario planners realized they had missed the whole point of the exercise.

Today at Shell, planning in any of the operating companies involves creating multiple plans. The planners think through how they would manage under different future scenarios. They must bring their assumptions-their mental models-out into the open, where they can be challenged and revised. That is how they define changing mental models through organizational learning.

We all tend to get locked into a mindset, and tend to filter out all kinds of information that does not fit our current paradigm. As members of organizations, we have to become paradigm-busters in order to build a learning organization. All learning involves two activities: thinking and doing. Begin by thinking about the things that can enhance the organization’s capacity for learning-things that will make the organization more adaptable, challenge mental models, and create aspiration. Then select tools and methods that will accomplish those goals.

A great philosophy about mental models, coupled with methods and tools like scenario planning, can get people thinking about making changes and doing things differently. For more information on mental models, visit the Society for Organizational Learning and click here.

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One Response to Mental Models

  1. Pingback: OneThing30: I’ll show you my mental model, if you show me yours | itsallonething

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