Mental Models – What are they and why are they important?

Anybody who has stopped to think about how they drive a car today will recognise that it’s a lot easier than it was when they first started out. In those early days, we really had to think about every little thing. About checking the mirror, using turning indicators, monitoring our speed relative to speed limits. About oncoming traffic, passing traffic, turning traffic and pedestrians. And we wondered how others saw us, whether we looked like we were in control or not.

Once we passed our driving test and had been driving for a while we settled into a routine. The things we were initially taught slipped into our subconscious and we started to unconsciously developed awareness and skill in navigating familiar terrain. We had, without realising it, developed mental models about driving in the conditions we encountered and used these to almost automatically drive our regular route. Sceptical?

Think for a moment about your usual driving situation. Perhaps it’s in a city and your usual route is from home to work and back again. Pretty easy, right? Now, imagine you’re on holidays in the Swiss Alps. You’re driving a rental car, it’s night, the weather is ghastly with snow and rain pouring down making the road surface very slippery. And to make things worse, you missed a turn and are now on a back road that is more like a goat track than a highway. As you wind your way down the mountain you notice a few rocks dislodge not too far in front of you and tumble down the cliff onto your goat track. How are you feeling right now? Focused? Alert?

Because we consume so much energy in dealing with the unfamiliar and difficult, the brain has to find ways to help us survive over the long-term. It does this by simplifying many situations. In the first example – city driving – the brain has built representations of the environment so that we don’t have to constantly think about its complexity. These representations are often called mental models. In the second example – goat track driving – the lack of familiarity means that the representations are not appropriate and can’t be used. As a result, the brain has to work, and work hard. Think about how tired you are when you arrive at work (first example) relative to you getting down the mountain (second).

Mental models are snippets that are generally incomplete. Yet we rely on them without consciously challenging their completeness or, indeed, their accuracy. Their unconscious use relives us from the cognitive load of complexity by fooling our thinking. This, in spite of what Alfred Korzybski noted, that “the map is not the territory”1.

Mental Models in Use

The great problem with mental models is the lack of consciousness with both their use and accuracy. In situations of complexity, such as making sense of, and decisions with, lots of information from the external environment, strategists unwittingly rely on mental models. I say unwittingly because mental models affect not just how we process information but also what information we deal with. Yes, mental models act as filters in order to help the brain and body cope with complexity. And they also simplify how we process and make sense of complex information. This helps explain why two people, processing exactly the same data, can come to wildly different conclusions about it. Their conclusions are perspectives.

A very interesting study was conducted in the 90’s on the makeup of competitive industries 2. It concluded that the boundary and specific competitive participants were a result, not of economic data, but of perceptions. And further, that these perceptions established self-reinforcing mental models about the nature and attributes of competitors and competitive behaviour – the way competitive behaviour was analysed and corresponding competitive decisions and actions followed.

The Importance of Mental Models

You are, no doubt, coming to appreciate that teams of people with diverse education, experience and social networks are likely to have equally diverse mental models on some topics. Likewise, people from more homogeneous backgrounds; same city, country, education system and with similar social structure will see situations more similarly.

The implications are profound:

The effects mental models have on information processing go largely unnoticed

Homogeneity can lead to patterns of sameness

In a world constantly changing, sameness of thinking can be strategically self-defeating

Ask yourself:

How is your organisation facilitating an appropriate level of ‘strategic thinking’ diversity?

What processes does your organisation use to guard against the risks of sameness?

Can you identify dominant mental models in use in your organisation?

Want to know more about how mental models work, and how they contribute specifically to your organisation’s performance? Make an appointment to chat to one of the Org Change consultants in your area. This link will take you to our Contact page.

  1. See and for a bit more detail
  2. A study in the Scottish Knitwear industry titled COMPETITIVE GROUPS AS COGNITIVE COMMUNITIES: THE CASE OF SCOTTISH KNITWEAR MANUFACTURERS. Further reading can be found here.