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.


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