Using our mental models as a better way to make decisions
What are mental models?
When I was asked to talk about mental models, I wasn’t sure where to start. It is a topic that is very close to my heart as I have always found it very relevant and interesting in my personal life but also at the workplace.
Many times, Momo, my dog, sits down quietly next to me and looks at me while I am working. He can stare at me for hours without making any noise when he needs something. Most probably when this happens, I will do the following:
- Think: have I forgotten again to feed him? (As a disclaimer I would say he eats a lot.)
- If the first question is negative, did he run out of water?
- Perhaps he needs to go down for a little walk?
Usually, I will then act upon my experience.
But the last time this happened, these mental models that made me act upon my experience, were obsolete, they did not work, as he was not hungry, needed neither water nor to go out, he was just asking for attention (and probably some cuddles). What I did not see coming is that he quietly left a little tennis ball we have for playing by my feet, he was asking for some playing time!
This is one example of the thousands of situations we face every day… and you may ask then, what are mental models and what are they used for?
A mental model is, simply, a concept, an idea, or a theory, or even a mental image, that helps us to understand and explain situations that may seem different to us every time but that happen in our daily lives. Simply, our mental models are the ways we understand the world.
According to Peter Senge:
“Mental models are conceptual frameworks consisting of generalizations and assumptions that affect how we view the world and act in it.”
If this explanation doesn’t ring any bells with you, I will try to explain it with another example.
We recently ran a workshop at Ninety with one of our clients based on this topic. We focused primarily on limiting and liberating mental models as we always like to challenge our ways to think differently.
We started the workshop asking this question: Can you describe a fairy?
For some participants, a fairy was more likely to be like the one from Cinderella that ‘transforms a pumpkin into a stagecoach’ or a smaller version ‘like Tinkerbell’ from Peter Pan.
Other participants said that it was something ‘resembling an elf’; some of them mentioned that it was ‘sparkly’ or ‘wearing a green or a pink dress’. Most people agreed that a fairy for them related to some kind of ‘MAGIC’ element.
For each and every one, a fairy was different. So, can you imagine now how our experiences frame the way we see the world we relate to?
How to challenge your mental models to make better decisions?
In the workspace, mental models are important as they heavily impact the way we acknowledge the information we take in. Our rational mind always seeks the ‘why’ behind our thinking and ways of acting.
Mental models not only influence the actions taken by the leaders but also the outcomes at our organizations. Moreover, often mental models can become obstacles rather than liberating actions, especially if we always use the same approach.
As innovation specialists at Ninety, we help insurers to innovate and challenge those ways of acting through creative thinking and agile methodologies.
Is there anything we can do to change our behaviours?
First of all, we need to understand how the thinking is created. According to Peter Senge there are different stages that we go through every time we take an important decision:
- Taking actions based on my beliefs.
- Adopting beliefs about the world.
- Building conclusions.
- Drawing assumptions based on meaning.
- Adding meanings based on cultural and personal experience.
- Selecting information that is observed.
- Observing information and experiences.
It works as a reflective loop; our beliefs influence what we observe – most of the time they are based on judgment and assumptions, something that we shouldn’t connect with when we are talking about an innovative approach.
Looking at the stages and its order, isn’t it weird that we start the loop by taking action? What about starting at the bottom? We can change our approach by observing information without quickly assigning a meaning.
If you think about the example with my dog, instead of rapidly jumping to conclusions and actions, I could have done better by:
- Observing (tennis ball),
- Selecting information from experiences and observation,
- Adding meaning to the tennis ball and the situation and then acting.
Think about how you take decisions; see if you can try to break your standard mental model by being aware of other ways of thinking; by asking yourself some questions about why you are thinking in a certain way.
- Try to avoid jumping to conclusions based on what we think others meant… this happens quite often, doesn’t it?
- And the one I like the most, active listening – listen with your whole body, without commenting, but just acknowledging what the other person or the situation is telling you and try not to draw conclusions based on your past experiences.
Breaking mental models is a powerful practice for individuals and leaders alike.
If you want to learn more about how mental models impact our innovation culture, we discuss this and how we can help your organization to start on the innovation path in our 90-Minute Mindsets talk:
Ninety’s 90-Minute Mindsets talk gives participants the opportunity to challenge their mental models around mindsets for innovation and how to implement them practically. The talk answers three key questions:
- What makes mindsets meaningful?
- What are the key mindsets for innovation?
- How can we implement them practically?
This is an interactive session with points for reflection between attendees. Participants will leave the session understanding how to identify and implement innovation mindsets, enhancing their ways of thinking and acting upon internal challenge within their working and daily life. With a very dynamic approach, the mindsets talk helps attendees to use agile methodologies and coaching techniques allowing them to practice learnings through their own innovation journey.
Ninety will be hosting an exclusive preview of the Ninety’s 90-Minute Mindsets talk for HR/L&D professionals on the 16th June, 9:00-11:00 at the Whitechapel Gallery. If you’d like to find out more about attending please contact email@example.com
“…If our mental models prevent us from learning, why couldn’t they accelerate our learning?” Peter Senge