Monday, January 19, 2009

Examining Our Mental Models: A Key to Breakthrough Thinking

In his book "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization", author Peter Senge describes five thinking tools or disciplines. One of these tools is the discipline of “Mental Models”. Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, beliefs, generalizations, or images that influence how we see the world and how we take action in it.

Very often we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our thinking and behavior, including how we go about strategic planning.

For example, if our mental model of a library is that of a building where the community keeps its books, we will spend much of our time thinking about adding shelf space and buying more books. On the other hand, if we view the library as the community’s gateway to an expanding world of information, we will think and act very differently. Mental models of what can and cannot be done in different management and community settings are no less deeply entrenched.

Here’s the point: if we proceed with strategic planning without examining our mental models, we run the great risk of creating a plan based on assumptions and beliefs that are, in whole or part, obsolete. A plan based on faulty thinking is not going to lead to the kind of impact we desire.

The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward: learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world and our work to bring them to the surface and hold them up to tough questioning. It also includes the ability to carry on "learningful" conversations in which people expose their own thinking and make that thinking open to the influence of others.

The discipline of mental models is a key to understanding how organizational learning takes place:

• We begin by unfreezing ourselves from currently held beliefs, knowledge, attitudes or mental models. We determine which mental models are still valid and provide true pictures of the world and which mental models no longer work.
• Next we absorb new or alternative attitudes, beliefs and behavior.
• Finally, we begin to make decisions and take actions based on the new state of mind.

Of course we will repeat this learning process from time to time as some of the new mental models become outdated themselves.

At a recent conference, nonprofit leaders were asked to identify some of the mental models, paradigms and assumptions that they operate from that influence how they act internally and externally. The list of mental models included the following:

For one nonprofit engaged in racial justice work, some of the mental models:

• Racism is so huge we can't possibly effect or impact or end it.
• The corporate world is resistant to racial justice work.
• Only people of color can do effective racial justice work.

Other nonprofits identified the following mental models:

• Our identity as an organization is our current building.
• More money will solve all of our problems (if we only had more funding . . .).
• People find fundraising inherently distasteful.
• We are a flat organization so we cannot provide internal opportunities for promotion and advancement.

These mental models represent ways of thinking that will limit our stratgeic thinking in significant ways.

During the conference workshop, participants then began to examine these mental models by applying the following questions:

• Does this mental model represent an accurate picture of the world? Is it still valid and what is the evidence that the mental model still works? (Are we sure?)
• Is this mental model obsolete in some way and if so, how? Again what is the evidence that the mental model no longer works?
• How will this mental model affect our strategic planning efforts?
• Can this mental model be improved?
• How can a new mental model increase the mission impact of our work in the future?

If you’re interesting in exploring the discipline of mental models further, here are two good resources:

Working with Mental Models by Roland Boettcher

Mental Models: The Second Discipline of Learning Organizations by Marty Jacobs

I’d like to end with a few quotes that help to make the point about the importance of understanding the impact of mental models on our work:

"You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." -- Buckminster Fuller

“The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we’ve done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.… We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive”. -- Albert Einstein

And on the eve of President Barack Obama’s Inauguration, the words of Abraham Lincoln:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.”