Whether an election or overthrow of power, a stock market crash or oil rig expolsion, a new job position or a bad day. These ‘events,’ or outputs, grab your attention and help build mental models; maps that supply the mental frame for your world.
As Fortune Senior Editor-at-Large Geoff Colvin puts it in his Bestseller Talent Is Overrated,:
“A mental model forms the framework on which you hang your growing knowledge of your domain”
How do your mental models affect what you do or what you perceive; a lot more than you would like to think.
When you go to work in the morning do you think about whether to turn left or right, or when to change gear in your car; probably not in the detail that the actions actually take place. This framework is built over hours, days and years to form mental maps so you don’t have to consciously think about each detail. Your models help you distinguish what information is important or irrelevant within the systems you live, saving you time and processing power.
What part of your brain is doing this (processing) ? The Scientific American Day in the Life of Your Brain by Judith Horstman tells us it has to do with your hippocampus:
“Your hippocampus, a pair of tiny seahorse-shaped structures deep in the brain is known to help create new memories, mark our movements through space, and help place our life events in a time line. But it may also be due to a process that involves specialized neurons that mark where you’ve been on a mental map”John Medina says in his book Brain Rules :
“The hippocampus is specifically involved in converting short term information into long term forms.”
So as you create these long term forms (parts in your mental models) they become your driver, the navigator for your actions. If one of your mental models is of general fearlessness then being told you should, or shouldn’t do something to ensure your safety, will have less chance in becoming part of your long term form and new mental model.
Peter M.Senge from MIT Sloan School of Management puts it this way in his bestselling classic, ‘The Fifth Discipline’
“new insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting”Remember not sharing (feedback of) mental models you can stifle innovation (caused by disconnect), negate safety measures and policies, stall progress and change or bog down learning. This leads to more of the same, or worse, more of what is not working at present.
Teaching today assumes (many times without thinking) that what is taught is adopted to become a new mental model of the learner, but people change their mental models at different rates. So when young sea cadets are taught (informed) before going aloft on a Sail training vessel 'the correct procedures', as in the Report No. 2/2011 March 2011 from The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB):
“ the importance of maintaining at least three points of contact, the need to be clipped on at all times, the procedure for changing clipping points from one safety line or wire to another, and challenging or reporting a cadet who was doing something wrong or dangerous.”It may be assumed and hoped that all cadets change their mental models of perhaps ‘fearlessness’ or ‘machismo’ and replace them with models of crew resource management and situation awareness, self-awareness and assertiveness.
A problem here is when the inputs have little reference to events, are not personalized, (prior event, situation or reference) and so less lightly to override existing mental models. The book Power of Impossible Thinking puts it this way:
In business and other organizations, these interactions become even more complex as individuals with their own mental models interact through group decision-making or negotiation, and they are susceptible to biases such as “group think” that can limit flexibility and constrict options. The ways people make sense of the world are determined to a large extent by the internal mind and to a lesser extent by the external world. It is this internal world of neurons, synapses, neurochemicals and electrical activity, with its incredibly complex structure functioning in ways society have only a vague sense of that is called the “mental model.” This model inside the individual brains is the representation of our world and ourselves.
Mental Models/Mindsets are part of our thinking. They are there even when we do not sense them; they are powerful, and determine what we see and do. If we leave them unchallenged, the world around us will change and our models/mindsets will become obsolete, forcing us to see the same opportunities, and achieve the same results. Shifting from one mental model to another will open possibilities, and spur thinking outside the box of our own mind. The four steps to change the mental models/mindsets are:
- Recognizing the power and limits of the mental model
- Keeping the mental models relevant
- Overcoming inhibitors to change
- Transforming the world
In the MAIB report quoted previously, a young cadet fell and tragically lost his life when he tried to go around another cadet while aloft , he had un-clipped (aloft), lost his balance and fell. The cadets were all told the same safety instructions prior to going aloft and the report noted:
“This was Jonathan’s second period on board TS Royalist and he was undoubtedly aware of the vessel’s rules to maintain at least three points of contact, and to be ‘clipped on’ at all times when on the yards.”
So why take this risk. Again back to mental models and how we see events in different ways, one person may look at this as a high risk situation while another (with a different mental model) sees it as a low risk.
As Peter M.Senge writes:
“Why are mental models so powerful in affecting what we do? in part, because they affect what we see. Two people with different mental models can observe the same event and describe it differently, because they’ve looked at different details and made different interpretations.”
A mental model is a way your brain helps you distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, it frees up your mental resources to concentrate on what is important to you, or the situation of system you are working in. It also enables you to project what will happen next. Geoff Colvin explains it with this example in his book Talent Is Overrated:
Two groups of firefighters, novices and experts, were shown scenes of fires and asked what they saw. The novices saw what was obvious - the intensity and color of the flames. But the experts saw a story; they used their mental models to infer what must have led to the current state of the fire and to predict what was likeliest to happen next. Note that these inferences and predictions are more than just interesting. They are evidence that the experts are far better prepared than the novices to fight the fire.
Mental models are passed from person to person, some good and some not so, this old one below (that should only be a used as a joke) may have been reason enough for the civil aviation to develop Cockpit Resource Management and then crew resource management.
Two rules aboard.Rule 1: The Captain is ALWAYS right.
Rule 2: See rule 1.
Everyday you use previous experiences (foundation to your mental models) to predict where you should pay attention. Not sharing your mental models with others you live and work with can lead to miscommunications, non-communication and groupthink.
Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (Irving Janis, 1972, p. 9).
Symptoms of Groupthink are:
- Illusion of invulnerability
- Collective rationalization
- Belief in inherent morality
- Stereotyped views of out-groups
- Direct pressure on dissenters
- Illusion of unanimity
- Self-appointed ‘mind guards’
While not all groupthink decisions are bad, the downside is always that other mental models may be missed, and lead to poor understanding of policy or procedures.
For individuals to come together as strangers and forge a cohesive team that can operate effectively after only a brief acquaintance they must recognize and understand the power of mental models.
Today’s Superyacht owners, Ship owners, Captains, Super yacht management companies and super yacht crews would be well advised in taking note of Mental Models. To work on bridging the gaps between what is thought and what is known. As Yoram (Jerry) Wind, Colin Cook put it in The Power of Impossible Thinking:
“In today’s complicated and uncertain environment, the greatest dangers are not from beasts prowling around outside. More often than not they are in our own minds, our inability to see our own limits and to see things differently.”