Mental models

What’s at the heart of a curious learning organization?

An organization is led by it’s mental models. These are our frameworks for “how we understand the world” (1).

A mental model is not the truth, it’s an assumption about how the world works.

A business commonly operates based on its own mental models e.g.:

“cars are primarily status symbols. Styling is therefore more important than quality” — GM (2)

Mental models consciously and/or subconsciously gets reflected in a company’s strategy.

The challenge with mental models is that they can easily become implicit (2) — not surfaced, held accountable nor tested.

“[if] we remain unaware of our mental models, the models remain unexamined .. they become unchanged. As the world changes, the gap widens between our mental models and reality, leading to increasingly counter productive actions” — Peter M. Senge (2)

An organization can either be held hostage (3) to the mental models of a limited few people or it can take advantage of the expertise available through its tens, hundreds or thousands of talents.

According to Bill O’Brien, Hanover CEO until 1991 (2) this marks the difference between an authoritarian and a learning organization:

“The healthy corporations will be the ones which can systematize ways to bring people together to develop the best possible mental models for facing any situation” — Bill O’Brien(2)

According to Senge (2) three facets can help an organization surface and test its models:

  • Tools that promote personal awareness and reflective skills
  • A culture that promotes inquiry and challenging our thinking
  • Infrastructure and practice that creates awareness of and action on mental models

Mental models can both impede and accelerate learning. “Learning is eventually always about action” reflecting on “what we say and what we do”. The problem lies not in the gap itself, but “failing to tell the truth about the gap” which is the difference between closing or inviting creative change. (2)

In other words: Mental models are at the heart of a curious learning organizations. If the organization is unaware of its own models, recognize them as facts instead of assumptions or keep them as the remit of a few people. It might fail to challenge itself, invite creative problem solving or inspire their best talent to stick around. It might instead end up solving problems that don’t exist, innovate solutions that lead to counter productive actions or create a culture of self-interest instead of shared values and enthusiasm (4).

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Helge Tennø

Helge Tennø

Founder and Principal at Jokull AS