Can You See Your Own Mental Models?

I was wandering around the kitchen this morning, making my breakfast. I notice this tag on the counter. I held it up and asked, “Can I delete this?”

Mark immediately cracked up laughing. So did I. In the real world, as opposed to our computers and the virtual world, we throw out trash. We don’t delete things. I knew then what my question of the week would be.

I asked that question about deleting because my mental models are stuck in my work. I’m writing a ton, drawing images, and remaining focused on my deliverables for this month. I have ambitious goals because I want to start 2018 with a cleaner slate.

I’m busy finishing, cleaning up, and yes, deleting things. My mental model of my work, my filters, changed how thought about and then how I spoke about the real world.

Often, as in this morning, the results are funny. I  referenced something on my computer, not in the real world. Mark understood me. He was able to make the leap to my mental model immediately. Not a problem.

Sometimes, we don’t make the leap very well. That creates a difference in our assumptions and conclusions.

I like images to help show how our mental models can change how we think. (These images about learning are from Create Your Successful Agile Project, in case you’re wondering.)

With single-loop learning, we make a plan, verify that we are okay (check), and adjust the plan as we proceed. If you drive someplace, even if you encounter a detour, single-loop learning is often good enough.

However, single-loop learning is often insufficient when you have a complex series of interdependent work. That’s why we use double-loop learning.

Double-loop learning helps us create an environment in which we can check our assumptions, not just our progress. If you’ve ever conducted a retrospective during a project, you’ve used double-loop learning.

Double-loop learning is not just for knowledge work. I use it all the time to check on my walking. Have I walked enough so far today? Do I need to think about what the rest of my day will be like and how I can get more steps in? I check my assumptions to make sure my assumptions match my reality.

Now, here’s the kicker. When we use our mental models, we can change everything about our double-loop learning.

Our mental models change our plans. They can change what we choose to check and adjust, and how to check and adjust them.

In reality, they also change our assumptions, but we can’t see those changes. Only other people can see that our mental models don’t match.

This mismatch of mental models as in this morning’s conversation with my husband can be funny. When the stakes are higher, the mismatch can be much more serious.

When people don’t understand your mental models, they may attribute your position to insufficient knowledge or caring or some other “problem.” If you don’t understand other people’s mental models,  you might think the same of them.

This morning, Mark thought I was funny. I can live with that. And, yes, I threw out that tag.

I use the idea of mental models when I discuss ideas—especially tricky ideas—with other people. I often ask, “Can you tell me your values or assumptions so I can understand you better?” Now, we start to see each other’s mental models and work on the issue together. We might never agree. However, we can make more progress.

That is the question of the week: Can you see your own mental models?

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