Mental Model Mayhem

Much ink has been spilled on how to work effectively and efficiently as teams in the post-Fordist knowledge economy. In many of our jobs, “what to do and how to do it” is sometimes far from obvious on its face, and so “good” knowledge workers and leaders are constantly on the lookout for the next big executional ideology to read up on, evangelise and implement in their jobs and organizations. We are constantly looking for heuristics and mental models to aid in our decision making — or at the very least to intellectually launder those decisions.

There are endless frameworks available for our perusal and use to increase team efficiency, effectiveness, harmony and everywhere in between. We “install” these frameworks kind of like little apps inside our heads, and often times in the heads of others. They can be very obvious and in your face, or subtle and unspoken. You know – stuff like: scrum, agile, lean, OKRs, 6 sigma, jobs to be done, complex adaptive systems, SWOT, NPS, Porters 4 forces, Wardley Maps, MECE, BCG, PEST, ABCDEFG. Pick your favorite.

In the professional knowledge economy at a certain autonomy level, these mental models and frameworks are hugely important, and their influence can be felt even when they go unseen or unspoken. Oftentimes they are crucial in driving organizational change, charting a strategic course or getting shit done. Sometimes they cause more harm than good.

Knowingly or not, we navigate the world of work and collaboration using not only the biases of our background, lived experience or personal self interest, but also in the quasi-ideological frameworks that we have equipped ourselves with. While the perceived value and purchase of them may vary by organization and department, you can find these executional ideologies everywhere you look, from what people implicitly (and sometimes consistently and obviously) nudge as a way to think about a problem, to full blown organizational presentations around how our new framework or ways of working is going to Solve All the Problems. In today’s world, it’s not just bring your own device, it’s bring your own framework.

When all of these people with all of their *executional ideologies* come into contact, oftentimes there is a significant amount of chaos. Sometimes one framework is pitted against another, other times two frameworks are ostensibly ring fenced and noncompetitive but overlap at the blurry boundary. And almost always, you and a good chunk of your colleagues will wear one or more of these frameworks like an augmented reality lens at all times.

Ask yourself some questions

  • Have you ever gotten a request from a colleague that was bewildering and contextless, but which was delivered with incredible confidence and detail?
  • Has an executive come back from the conference mountaintop with a new set of holy screeds on tablets for you to follow?
  • How many times have you interacted with colleagues inside your team or on other teams who seem to be talking past you often, rather than with you (or vice versa)? The words they’re saying make sense and are internally consistent, but you notice that each back and forth in the meeting is somehow off by a few degrees. You can’t quite understand what they’re getting at, but after a while you can actually start predicting it – as if they were reading talking points from a political messaging briefer.
  • Have you ever had this experience happen multiple times such that several topics discussed ad nauseam remain hazily bedded down at best, and misaligned at worst?
  • Has a new hire come in to the organization with a totally new way of doing things and prescriptions that seem reasonable but out of left field? What about a management consultancy? Has that new way worked while ruffling some feathers, or crashed and burn despite being adopted as the new shiny thing?

If you answered yes to one or more of these, you might be suffering from Mental Model Mayhem. It might be fairly benign in your organization – a bunch of people genuinely trying to do what’s best and mostly rowing in the same direction. Other times the epistemic drift metastasise into business sectarianism and can merge with other organizational dysfunction like politicking.

As I have not yet figured out the proper mental model for ameliorating Mental Model Mayhem, all I can do is hazard a few guesses and things that I have tried with colleagues at different companies with some degree of success:

  • Put your models on the table. Make sure your key colleagues are aware of the frameworks you subscribe to. Calibrate for whether they need to be participants (like in Agile) or just informed (like with Porter’s 4 forces let’s say).
  • As you make decisions, refer back to those models in presentations and documents. Leave a footnote with a few links for your “[Insert Business Framework X Here] starter pack.”
  • If you have a colleague who is quite passionate and vocal about supporting and/or using a certain framework, take the time to read up on it a little in good faith and come prepared to either help them develop and implement the framework if you feel its sound, or to gently offer a critique of the use of ideology X in situation Y if you feel it doesn’t actually fit.
  • Agree on an explicit “trial run” of a promising framework. Treat it as an experiment, and agree on how you will know if the experiment is working.

Any other ideas for better and safer collaboration when using mental models? Tweet me @basche42

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