Align Mental Models

We perceive reality around us as a set of mental models – a combination of ideas, concepts, algorithms, heuristics that allow us to apply abstract thinking to the real-world problems.

In fact, we never directly operate with a phenomenon, but through mental models. Writing a check, preparing for a Marathon run, cooking dinner, releasing software, coaching organizations – all have a set of mental models that we follow.

We are so used to it that we may not even realize that we are utilizing them all the time. But if everything eventually boils down to mental models, the following two things become really important:

  1. The accuracy of mental models or in other words, how well they reflect the reality. If they provide the wrong picture of the world, when using them we will be solving the wrong problems in the wrong way.
  2. Alignment of mental models across the enterprise. If multiple people have substantially different idea of reality, they will just continue to create more and more entropy.

Therefore an important task for a change agent is to identify problems with mental models in their organization and help fix them.

Many such problem stem from various blind spots – misconceptions, unvalidated assumptions, cognitive biases, etc.

As a result, blind spots distort the view of reality and lead to optimization effort applied in the wrong part of the system.

There are two main types of blind spots:

  • Fundamental, that typically underline a mindset problem (see Reductionist Mindset)
  • Nonessential, that stem from errors and gaps in perception while operating in the right system of coordinates overall.

Removing nonessential blindspots is always easier as there’s no conceptual disagreement, just a tactical misunderstanding. At the same time, fundamental blind spots can be really difficult to address and usually require dedicated effort on behalf of a change agent. The following considerations can be helpful (usually in combination):

Mental models are a central object for a coach to operate with. In fact, the whole Lean-Agile transformation journey can be described as a process of substantial change in mental models of the management and engineers. Mental models have certain “growth points” that need to be specially attended to ensure the evolution of mental models in the right direction:

  1. Problem-solving
  2. Decision-making
  3. Receiving feedback (both from the inside and the outside of the organization)
  4. Responding to change (in requirements, technology, business demand, skill structure, etc.)