Sunday, December 6, 2009

What is Your Mental Model?

This is an article on Learning Organisation written a few years ago. While the article is dated, the ideas are still valid and perhaps even evergreen. Enjoy!

Ever wonder why it is so difficult to persuade others using on reasons? This is because "action is driven by passions, not reasons”. Remember, logic tells, emotion sells.

Basically, people won’t act because they know, but only because they believe. To rally and move people forward, one must appeal to their passions and beliefs. In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, Brutus tried to explain the reason for assassinating Caesar to calm the crowd. Mark Anthony on the other hand appealed to the passion and emotion of the crowd. No points for guessing who manage to won the crowd over. One can try to explain the reasons for doing something over and over again but will not win over the people.

Often, when we think we are being rational, we are simply basing our decisions on an assorted collection of beliefs, myths, assumptions and prejudices. While this is true, the question is how can one avoid it. Given that most Singaporeans, are brought up in an education system skewed towards science and engineering, we are brought up in an environment that emphasizes a lot on rational reasoning and deduction.

A person cannot see beyond what he knows. He may be aware that his reasoning may not be all there is to the situation but he, alone will not be able to do much about it, even if he has all the passion. He will need mirrors to help him see blind spots that are not apparent to him before. This means he will have to seek out new approaches, perspectives and views to the issue by possibly talking to others. As the changes that affect a body of knowledge most profoundly do not, as a rule, come out of its own domain, he may have to ask someone outside his knowledge domain for new perspectives.

As he seeks out new approaches, perspectives and views, the number of possibilities increases, thereby raising chance of him getting the right approach. Even Moulder, in The X-File, also need Scully to challenge and offer alternative views and perspectives. A key takeaway here is to seek out new approaches, perspectives and views on a particular issue before making a decision. This may take times but the result will often be worthwhile.

Another is the speculative nature of inductive thinking. Another way to put it is jumping to conclusion. A change agent needs to be aware that the conclusions drawn may not be the truth. We live in a world of self-generating beliefs which remain largely untested. We adopt those beliefs because they are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what we observe, plus our past experience. Our ability to see the truth may be masked by our feelings that:

Our beliefs are the truth.
The truth is obvious.
Our beliefs are based on real data.
The data we select are the real data.

This problem can be overcome by a passion for understanding that exceeds our rational need to draw conclusion. Realistically, life will become inefficient and tedious if we stop adding meaning or drawing conclusions on data we observe. The issue is therefore to become aware of the speculative nature of inductive thinking. Once we are aware of this, we can then slow down our mental processes and start inquiring into whether we miss any other observable data or information and how we arrive at the conclusion. As this process is likely to be tedious and not intuitive (imagine asking ourselves why we think like the way we think), it will take a great deal of passion for understanding for someone to constantly do it. The process is however worthwhile as it will help a change agent better understand the situation and therefore arrive at the truth.

We must also be aware that there is very little truth that is self-evident. This means if something presents itself as self-evident, be very cautious and start inquiring about it. A great deal of passion will be needed to drive us to the core of our individual or organizational being, to ask the worthwhile questions, to get at meaning and not just facts. This is so because as one tries to unravel the truth, he will have to ask very deep questions and challenge the obvious. This may get some people upset. However, if he stops digging when he encounters difficulties, he will not get to the truth. This means don’t just accept what is obvious but inquire into it to achieve a greater understanding to get nearer to the truth. Otherwise, a change agent may end up addressing the superficial issues without getting to the real issues.

On the paradoxical nature of reality, it is not a one or the other situation. Instead, it is possible to have a situation where one can have the cake and eat it. A decade ago, quality and costs are thought off as incompatible. A firm can only choose quality or low cost but not both. Today, quality leads to lower costs. It is all a matter of the mind. Of course, the correct time and space also play a part. A change agent will often face issues that are paradoxical in nature. While it may appear impossible to resolve the issue, it is but a perception. As one gets nearer to the truth, it may become clearer that the issue may not be paradoxical after all.
Change will always bring pain. If there is no pain, then it is not real change. People will however have a strong desire to avoid pain. It is sometimes necessary to incur pain early or the damage will be too great to heal. A few years ago, it was reported that a mountain climber had to amputate his own hand to free himself from under a rock and then hike some distance before he is found and send for treatment. A true leader will need passion to make difficult personal and organizational choices, especially when these choices will incur pain.

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