How Mental Models Determine Your Success (or Not)

8th Jul 2021


“Don’t change your behaviour. Change what shapes your behaviour,
and watch your behaviour change.”


Got a gnarly problem?

Most of the time, we try to solve problems by changing what we do. Faced with a challenge, we ask what can we do differently? For simple problems, that’s usually sufficient. Light bulb blown? Replace the bulb. Still not working? What can we do differently? Let’s check the fuse. And so on…

When it comes to more complex problems, like culture change, climate change, or career change, for example, what can we do differently? isn’t enough. We’re all familiar with how the good intentions of simple answers to complex problems can go wrong. Just think of corporate restructures…

When we face persistent issues with no easy answer, we need to go deeper. 

We need to go beyond what we do to how we think

That’s where mental models come in.

What’s a mental model? It’s a way of describing how we think the world works. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a mental model. So is the economic model of Supply and Demand. You’ve probably got a mental model about how to motivate people, or how the weather works.

How we think drives what we do. Our mental models shape our behaviours, and our ability to learn. 

If I have a mental model that says the reason that people want to work from home is because they’re lazy and untrustworthy, as a manager, I’ll be more likely to have policies that make people come to work in the office. (Yes, just last week I had a conversation with a manager who thought along these lines). If my mental model says people are mature enough to make their own decisions about how they can be most productive, I’ll likely have a different set of policies.

In 1976, the British statistician George Box famously said “all models are wrong. Some are useful.” If we accept that idea, and if we can accept that we make a huge proportion of our decisions based on models of how we think the world works, we have a chance of making progress. We can open the door to interrogation of those models and in turn create new possibilities for old problems. 

Last week, in a Change Makers workshop, we did just that. We each came along with a gnarly challenge we were facing (we called them ‘battle stories’) and worked in small groups to address each challenge. But we didn’t try to solve the challenge by coming up with ideas. Instead, we explored the mental models we held about the challenge. To do that, we used questions designed to surface and interrogate those models.

Before we started, we came up with a list of questions to ask each other:

  • What outcome do / did you want?
  • Describe your mental model about what’s happening here with this challenge, and why.
  • What’s informing you about how you’re going about addressing this issue?
  • What information do / did you have?
  • What information are you / were you missing?
  • What stories are you telling yourself?
  • What evidence do you have?
  • What might you be / were you assuming?
  • What’s informing your assessment of the outcome? What else?
  • How might you now upgrade your mental model?

Without exception, each person in the room found the exercise hugely valuable, and got new insights that led to new experiments.

So, the next time you or your team is facing a gnarly challenge, try asking some of these questions and watch new possibilities emerge.

For more resources on this idea:

  • A Map to Change: a tool to help you define and shift your thinking and behaviours. Really useful for individuals and teams.
  • Annie Duke: Getting better by being wrong. All of us in the group listened to this podcast episode before we came along to the workshop. Annie Duke is a former professional poker player and expert in uncovering and interrogating mental models to inform better decisions. For the section on mental models, listen from approximately 20 minutes to 50 minutes in.



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