This past week I introduced some systems thinking tools on mental models I use almost every day but don’t get to introduce to teams as often as I would like. They are great tools but don’t fit easily into our “here are five things”, “three easy steps” and “two questions that will fix everything” corporate improvement lexicon. Working with mental models can be complex, messy, and really useful. They also require curiosity and practice.
One of the tools, the Ladder of Inference (Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard) can be found in The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. It is an understatement to say that this book rocked my world and helped me gain a much better understanding of organizational learning. If you work in organization development you most likely know the Ladder of Inference. Many leaders have used it as well but I am not sure if it used as often as it should be. The thing about systems thinking and mental models is they are designed to help us maneuver through the increasing complexity of our world. The work done by the Society for Organizational Learning at MIT, and popularized by Senge’s book, is more relevant today than ever.
We all need to keep learning and expanding our understanding. Technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence are all set to offer monumental efficiencies at organizations around the world. If they don’t replace us, they are predicted to make many of our species less busy and less employable. So we all, business leaders included, need to continue to grow: our skills, our knowledge, but most of all how we think. Our ability to think and learn with greater agility is at the center of my work and one of the most important competencies for leaders in every discipline.
Mental models are the cognitive “maps” or operating system we use to inform what we see, make up, and believe about the world. Our formative years are “mental model generating” and as these models become more semipermanent they allow us to maneuver through the world and become more skillful. We add to them all the time and can do so throughout our lives no matter how old we are. But when we become more experienced and knowledgeable, or have been working in a discipline for a while, we often challenge our mental models less and less. We perceive, select data, add meaning, draw conclusions, adopt beliefs, make decisions and act on our mental models without really questioning or testing them. They become a reflexive loop where we perceive and add meaning based upon a filter that only allows in what we have the cognitive capacity to see. When a leader is working on an important project, has a big decision, a high stakes conversation or needs to bring about big shifts in their business, they need to access to other people’s mental models. They need to be able to learn from and apply them.
If you start working with mental models, you will not only make better decisions, but you will expand your thinking in ways that you must if you are going to remain relevant: market a new product to a new customer or inspire an audience in another part of the world with which you are less familiar.
Through walking up the ladder of inference, we can unpack our own and others thinking, we become more intelligent. We are able to see more and better understand the perceptions, assumptions and beliefs of others outside of ourselves. If we practice it (and other mental model tools) often enough, we expand our frame and our perceptive capacity. It takes courage to walk up the ladder, because you may find out that you don’t see things the way others do and that you might not have the best answer. This can be difficult, especially for really smart people in powerful positions. You also need to make sure that the process is safe, especially if there are power imbalances in the room. You can’t really work with the ladder if you aren’t open to hear what others are thinking and feeling. They will smell a rat. So if you are going to do what you want to do regardless of what you learn, don’t use it – you will just look less trustworthy. Sometimes you may not have time to go through the collaborative and reflective process required to work with mental models. That’s okay. But when you have an important project or decision, what you “know” is probably not enough, and if you don’t learn what you need to, it can have disastrous consequences.
 For excellent explanations of both tools I recommend the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, by Peter Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard Ross, and Bryan Smith. Copyright, 1994.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.