Being a Discerning Thinker (aka Understand the Mental Models that Drive Your Thinking and Behavior)

What goes through your mind when you hear or read a statement like, “Change is hard?” Most people simply take it at face value, mindlessly add it to their belief system, and move on. There is little thought given to the conditions that might make it true (or false) and whether the statement agrees with or contradicts personal experience, observations, and beliefs. A more thoughtful person, however, would take a different approach and examine the statement in light of his mental models to determine if the statement holds up or if his mental models are outdated and need to be changed.

A mental model – or paradigm – is a framework or worldview that helps you understand life, make decisions, solve problems, interpret the world, and understand the relationship among things. Mental models are deeply held beliefs about how the world works and they guide your perception and behavior.

Most lean and agile coaches (and other consultants) unsurprisingly operate from the “change is hard” mindset — the metaphor they use is that change is a long arduous journey. The start of the journey is the client’s current state and the destination is the eventual end (desired) state. Sometimes, the journey is envisioned as one without an end — a distant ideal state or north star. Of course, the journey isn’t expected to be easy; it’s supposed to be hard and that’s why consulting help is highly recommended — a “good consultant” can show the way by producing plans and schedules and highlighting future expected impediments and countermeasures. This leads one to believe that transformative change is a linear, staged, and controllable process.

People with a different set of mental models, however, can view change differently:

  • Continuously unveiled: Instead of change being controllable, it can be viewed as being continuously unveiled wherein every intervention and interaction gives rise to new circumstances that have to then be addressed or skirted, ad infinitum. These new circumstances and their order cannot be preconceived; change is, therefore, a series of ongoing adjustments to what is being observed. Non-trivial change is, therefore, contextual, non-linear, and impossible to be staged.
  • Instantaneous: Instead of change being long and hard, it can be instantaneous like adding milk to hot tea. Just like the drops of milk diffuse through the hot tea, the right change interventions can smoothly, continuously, and effortlessly ripple throughout the organization. The operating belief is that a small amount of change in an important habit can cause a disproportionately large transformative effect. Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit,” calls these “keystone habits.” This change is permanent — you can’t easily separate the milk and tea once mixed.
  • Easy: Change can be easy. Effort doesn’t have to be a matter of gritting one’s teeth and willfully forcing oneself to act. Effort arises naturally once you establish the conditions that generate it.

The “long and hard journey” metaphor often leads to the belief that people are “change averse” — they neither like change nor the effort required to make that change. But there is enough anecdotal evidence that people make drastic changes willingly — we all leave the comfort of our parent’s house, go out into an uncertain world, change jobs, get married, have kids, etc. We are not averse to change; however, we are suspicious of change efforts that do not make sense from our point of view. Calling someone names, like a “resister” is so much easier than getting out of our own comfortable echo chamber and dealing with the vexing and even annoying challenges raised by the person who disagrees with your narrative. “Resistance” isn’t due to a lack of desire to change, but due to lack of information, skills, or insight and due to a fundamental disagreement with the change approach or desirability of the result. Change agents need to focus on people’s concerns, interests, desires, and bandwidth for change instead of lazily lumping people in a “change resistant” bucket.

Having a point of view is good, but believing that your mental models are the only true ones can blind you, make you inflexible in your thinking and approach to work, and preclude available options. The more we rely on outdated mental models even while the world around us is changing, the more our mental “entropy” increases. Mental models are imperfect and only provide partial explanations; however, good ones have the most utility and help you make wiser choices and take better actions.

Developing a broad base of mental models is critical for anyone interested in thinking clearly, rationally, and effectively. This is summed up nicely in the following quote from Timber Hawkeye,

“Our opinions and beliefs tend to change depending on time, place, and circumstance. And since we all experience life differently, there are multiple theories on what’s best, what’s moral, what’s right, and what’s wrong. Therefore, no matter how certain we are of our version of the truth, we must humbly accept the possibility that someone who believes the exact opposite could also be right (according to their time, place, and circumstance). Accept that other people’s perspectives on reality are as valid as your own (even if they go against everything you believe in), and honor the fact that someone else’s truth is as real to them as yours is to you.”


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