Mental Models

Do you control your mental models, or, do your mental models control you? If you are not aware that you have a choice of how to look at a situation or problem, if you are not conscious of the decision you have taken to use any particular model to understand that bit of the world, then you are using whatever happens to be your default model for situations of that type. The model is running you. If you are aware that you have a conscious choice, and you can weigh up what the benefits of the different models available are, then chances are that you are running the models, and not the other way around. But to be able to choose, you have to have a choice – if you only have one model of organization then, to all intents and purposes, you have no choice. That is the one you will use whenever you think about an organization.

Models are incredibly insidious, models slide undetected into discussions and then dominate the way managers think about their situation. A UK Secretary of State for Health, when talking about changing the National Health Service, used the metaphor of turning a supertanker, observing that this was a very slow process with a huge amount of inertia built in. It was a model of the change process that was often repeated in government and in business. But if a metaphor or model is inappropriate it will lead managers to make assumptions about what is going on that can have very far-reaching consequences, and metaphors always have assumptions built into them. In this case, built into the comparison with steering a supertanker are several fatally false assumptions: that the NHS is one cohesive entity that can be steered, that the Secretary of State is the one doing the steering, and that there is any sort of steering mechanism. The model encourages managers to think and act in particular ways, which in this case were doomed because most of the assumptions built into the model were not valid.

– Patrick Hoverstadt, The Fractal Organization

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