All Your Mental Models are Obsolete


Even after playing lots of tricks to reduce its energy consumption, our brains still consume a large portion of the calories we eat.  Like today’s smartphones it’s computing power is too big for it’s battery so its algorithms conserve every chance they get.  One of its go-to conservation strategies is to make mental models.  The models capture the essence of a system’s behavior without the overhead of retaining all the details of the system.

And as the brain goes about its day it tries to fit what it sees to its portfolio of mental models.  Because mental models are so efficient, to save juice the brain is pretty loose with how it decides if a model fits the situation.  In fact the brain doesn’t do a best fit, it does a first fit. Once a model is close enough, the model is applied, even if there’s a better one in the archives.

Overall, the brain does a good job.  It looks at a system and matches it with a model of a similar system it experienced in the past.  But behind it all the brain is making a dangerous assumption.  The brain assumes all systems are static.  And that makes for mental models that are static.  And because all systems change over time (the only thing we can argue about is the rate of change) the brain’s mental models are always out of date.

Over the years your brain as made a mental model of how your business works – customers do this, competitors do that, and markets do the other.  But by definition that mental model is outdated.  There needs to be a forcing function that causes us to refute our mental models so we can continually refine them. [A good mantra could be – all mental models are out of fashion until proven otherwise.]  But worse than not having a mechanism to refute them, we have a formal business process the demands we converge on our tired mental models year-on-year.  And the name of that wicked process – strategic planning.

It goes something like this. Take a little time from your regular job (though you still have to do all that regular work) and figure out how you’re going to grow your business by a large (and arbitrary) percentage. The plan must be achievable (no pie in the sky stuff), it should be tightly defined (even though everyone knows things are dynamic and the plan will change throughout the year), you must do everything you did last year and more and you have fewer resources than last year.  Any brain in it’s right will fit the old models to the new normal and put the plan together in the (insufficient) time allotted. The planning process reinforces the re-use of old models.

Because the brain believes everything is static, it’s thinking goes like this – a plan based on anything other than the tried-and-true mental models cannot have certainty or predictability in time or resources.  And it’s thinking is right, in part.  But because all mental models are out of date, even plans based on existing models don’t have certainty and predictability.  And that’s where the wheels fall off.

To inject a bit more reality into strategic planning, ignore the tired old information streams that reinforce existing thinking and find new ones that provide information that contradicts existing mental models.  Dig deeply into the mismatch between the new information and the old mental models.  What is behind the difference?  Is the difference limited to a specific region or product line? Is the mismatch new or has it always been there?  The intent of this knee-deep dissection is not to invalidate the old models but to test and refine.

There is infinite detail in the world.  Take a look at a tree and there’s a trunk and canopy. Look at the canopy and see the leaves. Look deeper to see a leaf and its veins.  In order to effectively handle all this detail our brains create patterns and abstractions to reduce the amount of information needed to make it through the day.

In the case of the tree, the word “tree” is used to capture the whole thing – roots and all.  And at a higher level, “tree” can represent almost any type of tree at almost any stage in its life.  The abstraction is powerful because it reduces the complexity, as long as everyone’s clear which tree is which.

The message is this. Our brain takes shortcuts with its chunking of the world into mental models that go out style. And our brain uses different levels of abstraction for the same word to mean different things. Care must be taken to overtly question our mental models and overtly question the level of abstraction used when statements of facts are made.

Knowing what isn’t said is almost important as what is said. To maintain this level of clarity requires calm, centered awareness which today’s pace makes difficult.

There’s no pure cure for the syndrome. The best we can do is to be well-rested and aware. And to do that requires professional confidence and personal disciple.

Slowing down just a bit can be faster, and testing the assumptions behind our business models can be even faster.  Last year’s mental models and business models should be thought of as guilty until proven relevant.  And for that you need to make the time to think.

In today’s world we confuse activity with progress. But really, in today’s dynamic world thinking is progress.

Image credit – eyeliam.

One Response to “All Your Mental Models are Obsolete”

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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