Unlearning: The Construction And Deconstruction Of Our Mental Models

“To learn better mental models we may have to unlearn some of our existing ones.”  -Gary Klein Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for Keys to Adaptive Decision Making

If we are going to begin a discussion around mental models, we should possibly begin with a short understanding or idea of just what are mental models?

According to the Business Dictionary, mental models are…

“Beliefs, ideas, images and verbal descriptions that we consciously or unconsciously form from our experiences and which (when formed) guide our thoughts and actions within narrow channels. These representations of perceived reality explain cause and effect to us, and lead us to expect certain results, give meaning to events, and predispose us to behave in certain ways. Although mental models provide internal stability in a world of continuous change, they also blind us to facts and ideas that challenge or defy our deeply held beliefs. They are by their very nature, fuzzy and incomplete.

The world is complex, as are our systems. And as the depth of this complexity increases, we find ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, creating mental models to help us navigate our way through the convolution created from this complexity. Mental models that are formed to steer us through this much more intricate and complicated world that we are now facing.

And it is in the midst of this complexity, that we find ourselves searching fervently for more simplicity. A search that both allows and forces us to build mental models that are often either imperfect or incomplete. Mental models that can shield us from the inadequacies and blind spots that we are creating within this process. Shielding us from faulty perceptions and thinking.

Inability to reflect upon those blind spots can inhibit and diminish our ability to evolve and lean more effectively into the change necessary and needed to move more relevantly into the future.

Accepting that the world and our organizations are not only complex, but changing, growing and evolving living systems, provides a strong rational for why our mental models must remain under constant reflection and transformation if they are to better equip us move forward more effectively in the midst of this complexity.

Which gives a strong foundation to why today’s leaders must be learners. And not only learners, but adaptive learners. We have to not only be willing to exist in a constant state of learning, but to continually reflect upon and revisit past learning, analyze the relevance of current learning, while still initiating new learning.

A constant deconstruction and construction of learning. A state of unlearning and relearning.

Or as Gary Klein shares in Streetlights and Shadows, “Rather, we suspend our belief in the old mental models so that we can learn new ones. Our content knowledge is reorganized or re-deployed.”  Or as he adds, “People usually have to lose faith in their old mental models before they can seriously consider new ones.”

Change is reflective of the world that we live in, it is often difficult and complex, but constant and necessary. And if we are not careful, our mental models can not only impede that process, but entrench us in irrelevant practices, processes and perceptions that hold us back from turning the corner on transformation.

A caterpillar can only inch along in an incremental manner; it is only in its willingness to transform itself into a butterfly that freedom and flight into the future are achieved.


Disruption And The ‘Genetic Drift’ Of Modern Organizations

“People who lead frequently bear scars from their efforts to bring about ‘adaptive’ change.  Often they are silenced.”  -Richard Foster Creative Destruction

Below is a very important story that gives account to the demise and extinction of the dodo bird. Important in how it how correlates to what is facing today’s modern organizations, from business, to government and even education. No one or organization is immune to this ‘drift’.

According to ‘How It Works’

“While debated hotly by scientists, the dodo became extinct for three reasons. First, before humans arrived on Mauritius – an island in the Indian Ocean where the dodos had evolved – they had no natural predators and as such were easy to hunt by travelers looking for food supply. Second, the humans who landed on Mauritius brought with them numerous foreign animals not native to the island such as pigs, dogs, and macaques, which are reported have frequently raided the dodo’s nests to take their young. Finally, as more and more of Mauritius became colonized so that its natural resources could be harvested and exported, habitat loss severely reduced the territory in which dodos could successfully live and reproduce.”

What the story above fails to reveal, in regards to the eventual demise and extinction of the dodo bird, is that at one time they had the ability to fly. But over a long period of time, living undisturbed by predators, as well as having easy access to food that had fallen to the ground, the dodo bird lost both its need and ability to fly.

It became comfortable…

It is this lost of flight, this ‘genetic drift’ that made the dodo bird vulnerable to predators. Which wasn’t a problem, until humans landed on Mauritius, at which point it was too late to change or adapt. It was too late to adjust to save itself.

The problem is that this same ‘genetic drift’ happens in today’s modern organizations.  

We find that we hide in our successes and insulate ourselves from change for so long that when the real need for change comes along, we are unable to adjust in agile and adaptive ways. We find that we’ve lost the ability to shift or change, often leading to this ‘drift’ into irrelevance. In which our organizations go the way of the dodo bird, unable to cope or compete with the predators that are disrupting the current state of things.

The question then becomes…

Can we enable our individuals and organizations to become more adaptive in how we look at change?  

Can we learn to recognize our ‘drifts’ and how to correct them effectively before they lead us down a path of irrelevance?

Can we learn to correct our ‘drifts’ before they embed and entrench themselves in our individual and organizational DNA?

Far too often, our successes and not our failures lull us into a state of stasis and status quo, allowing ‘fixed mindsets’ and ‘genetic drift’ to settle in. And when change is needed, we often find that it is too late. The damage is done and the losses become irreparable.

In the end, we have to recognize that organizations have an embedded need to recoil to the safety of the status quo, which requires ongoing disruption to build collective and adaptive capacity…

If we are to avoid the fate of the once thriving dodo bird.

In The Exponential Age…

In the Exponential Age…

If we want to truly birth innovation, we will have to learn how to bury the successes that keep us entrenched in the glory days of the past.

In the Exponential Age…

It will not be our failures that trap us in organizational stasis and status quo, but rather, our successes that will marry us to a deep-seated fear of change and the uncertainty and ambiguity that accompanies that change.

In the Exponential Age…

Transform or Reform? Refusal or Reinvention? Those will be the questions that we will have to grapple and come to terms with. Those are the questions that every organization and leader will eventually have to make decision upon. And those are the questions that will determine how effectively we evolve into this new and unknown future.

In the Exponential Age…

We will find that creativity and innovation are not only required, but are cognitively demanding shifts that we will all have to learn how to balance, especially if leaders and organizations are going to scale this work. We will have to find ways to diminish the cognitive load that is brought on by the changes in thinking and doing that is required in order to undertake this work.

In the Exponential Age…

Inability to learn how to become more agile and adaptive will serve as the beginning signs of individuals and organizations emerging into the future in a much more archaic and irrelevant manner. Disruption will move from markets to mindsets.

In the Exponential Age…

An inhibitor to future growth and learning is not that we aren’t connecting and cross-pollinating dots but, rather, that we continue to connect and cross-pollinate the same dots.

In the Exponential Age…

The deep work of today’s leaders will be in seeing the shift from ‘technical’ problems to ‘adaptive’ challenges, and determining not to avoid the heavy lifting this work will require.

In the Exponential Age…

If we’re going to move to more creative and innovative collective capacity, we must be willing to move past veneer understandings of what this actually means and the incremental actions that allow us to continue to operate at a surface level.

In the Exponential Age…

Much will be required of our leaders, our organizations and everyone within.

In the Exponential Age…

“People who lead frequently bear scars from their efforts to bring about adaptive change. Often they are silenced.”  -Richard Foster Creative Destruction