Poor Mental Models fail teams before they even start?

One of the most powerful team exercises is to explore team leaders and team members “mental models” of teams, networks and groups. Mental models are the, often invisible, dictators of what actually happens in a team as opposed to what team leaders would like to happen. Here are some practical techniques for uncovering these “icebergs of the mind” before they sink your teams.

Image from: http://www.spyjournal.biz/taxonomy/term/84

According to Peter Senge author of The Fifth Discipline book people act according to their “mental models” which he defines as:

deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior. The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.

Now here is the really important thing about mental models – there are two very different mental model knocking about in our heads for every important aspect of our lives:

Espoused models are what we think we believe or how we might explain our beliefs to others

In-use models are what an analysis of our real-world actions, by an independent observer would suggest we actually believe.

As an example take the important topic “Skidding on Ice in a car” ….
Our espoused mental model would probably reflect best practice of turning into the skid. However because the espoused model is somewhat counter-intuitive our In-use model may actually be to turn against the skid with the inevitable consequences. I know this from hard experience!

Here is another example of mental models applied to teams – the cartoon at the top of the article refers!
I believe that the In-use models of some software project managers – “its better to be doing something instead of nothing – even if you don’t know what you are doing”. However if you asked them what they believe about software project management (i.e. their Espoused Models) they would probably say they always get the requirements clear before they let their team start coding! Can you see the problem?

How to use “mental models” to improve teams
An excellent team session is to openly explore both Espoused and In-Use mental models in the key team areas such as:

  • Team Leadership
  • Decision-making
  • Risks and Rewards
  • Initiative and autonomy
  • Blame

But how do you actually change mental models?
That’s the bigger question and merits a whole article in itself – however here are 3 simple ideas to get you started:

1) You can’t change mental models if you don’t see them – so the first step is making mental models visible.

2) Even when you see your mental models you may not believe them – so a good approach is to invent ways for team members to experience their mental models in some way – simulation and role-playing is a great way to do this.

3) Sometimes the required mental model change is simply too big to take in one step – think about interim “bridge” models to get the change started in the right directions.