A conversation with Emory Executive Education’s Professor Steve Walton…
Academics and consultants like to use Mental Models to clarify complexity and allow managers to have readily comprehensible visibility of how to deal with the challenges they encounter. The only snag with models is that, as statistician George Box famously noted, “all models are wrong…” though he did follow this up with “…though some are useful.”
With Box’s words echoing in our ears, one should always keep in mind that models simplify, and as a result should only be thought of as offering approximations and not exact explanations for real-life situations. Mental Models come in these three categories:
- Formal – Those circulated by academics and consultants and found in text books – such as the balanced scorecard – a mental model of strategic alignment, or Discounted Cash Flows – a mental model of the value of a stream of cash flows over time.
- Informal – Those little frameworks and heuristics we use to make life simpler, but which are not codified. “Thursday night is pizza night” is a mental model of dinner planning. Or what route you take home when it is raining.
- Embedded – An organization’s culture is a mental model of appropriate work behavior; task-shifting when a text or email notification comes in is a mental model of our ability to multi-task.
It is these ‘embedded’ mental models that interests me.
They are the ones that are so deeply inside of you as a set of beliefs and frameworks that you do not even recognize that they are in play. Organizational culture is one example. People tend to think culture is handed down from the mountain tops and not just modelled behavior to which we subscribe.
We observed two well-known international delivery companies and researched how their employees collectively viewed their organization. One company described themselves as ‘engineers with trucks’ while the other thought of themselves as ‘a brand with trucks’. Neither of these views are right or wrong, but they indicate very different embedded mental models. The former leads to employees seeking to optimize their operations, tweaking processes and adjusting procedures to make everything run efficiently. The latter, their competition, with the focus on brand, have much greater concern for pleasing the customer; problems for this company are solved through a customer service lens.
There is great value in understanding the embedded mental model for your organization. How the organization views itself colors almost every decision, from high-level strategy, to individual responses, to customer requests and problems. The challenge is that typically these embedded mental models are not understood by the organization.
The first element of most leadership programs is ‘self-awareness’, it is equally important for leaders of organizations – at every level – to understand how their organization’s mental models also work. Only when you have vision of the embedded mental model for the organization, can you be in a position to see the blind spots.
Remembering Box’s aphorism, that all models are wrong, identifying the model’s blind spots allows for divergent, new thinking to occur. Only by identifying the blind spots – that is, accepting there are gaps in your current mental model – can you ask yourself the question, “do we need to change to manage the issues now uncovered?” and the harder issue of, “if we reframe our embedded mental model in a different fashion, in what ways do we see the world differently?” This latter process opens up the opportunity for divergent thinking and greater innovation and creativity.
When we brought the ‘engineers with trucks’ thinking to the surface in the delivery company, it allowed them to understand that “we’ve got to get outside of ourselves and into the outside world. We can’t engineer ourselves out of every problem.”
Executives hate ambiguity, and they love to come to business schools to obtain solid frameworks and models to give them clarity and certainty about the decisions they need to take. However, it is just as valuable to take some time to see what the models do not cover; where they do not fit. When I use George Box’s quote it always resonates with participants. It is important to get away from the notion that models are perfect, and that they are genies that will offer complete solutions, rather than something that is by definition flawed in a particular way. And we need to constantly be asking the question, “where is that blind spot?” These recommended job designs can not only be valuable in extreme, high-reliability working environments, they can also potentially benefit any organization where work is complex and operational reliability is critical.