Designing Mental Models

Thoughts of changing our world won’t yield much without examining our mental models. That means designing for how we think, not just what we think.

When looking to generate some kind of major systems change — whether that’s your own life, that of your organizations’ , or social change — understanding the layers of activity and ways of perceiving those layers are critical. We can’t make substantial change if we’re consistently reacting to events without consideration of the broader context and patterns that events are a part of.

Daniel Kim’s Vision Deployment Matrix is a tool that helps plot out some of these systems layers to help us understand what we’re seeing when we look at systems. The matrix is much like the iceberg model — acknowledging that there is much more below (or in this case, above) the events that are made manifest. In both analogies, mental models are among where the great leverage for change takes place in shaping an ultimate vision.

https://ecochallenge.org/iceberg-model/

Design for Transformation

What this approach to systems thinking illustrates is how our assumptions, believes, and values shape how we think and what we think about. That shapes what we see.

Design, in this model, is below mental models, however what if they were conjoined? I’m not suggesting we re-work the model, rather we consider how we design systems to generate and maintain mental models. This is partly what design for transformation.

We learn by seeing, studying, witnessing, experiencing, perceiving, and by doing. This implies a way of changing our mental models requires new information, new engagements, and new actions. By ‘new’ I refer to the qualitative experience, not necessarily a wholly new activity. This might mean experiencing the same thing and then shifting something during that experience.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to consider ways in which we can create new experiences and structures that support the kind of reflection, perception, and exchange that allow us to take information and see it anew.

Without a focus on time and design for the means to change our ways of think — learning — we will not achieve transformation without crisis.

Time for Change

One of the biggest lies told to ourselves is that we can make these changes without a commitment to and investment of time. Whether it’s sprints, hacks, or pivots, there is a prevailing discourse in innovation, performance and systems change that centres on speed. “Move fast and break things” was the original mantra of Facebook (and much of Silicon Valley) and has proven it doesn’t really work for complex, sustainable change.

The issue is that the awareness and integration of the lessons we face do not subscribe to speed. Our mental models are based on habits of mind, received knowledge and wisdom from the dominant cultures to which you’re exposed to, and curious random effects. The first two generate significant energy (and pull) and the third (random) is unpredictable and can’t reasonably, consistently be influenced with any design.

This is the crux of real learning for transformation — which is based on what we know and what we do and do persistently, consistently, over time.

We design the time in our operations (systems) for understanding that very system.

“Creating” the Time

How to do this? Some places to start include:

  • Generate views of your system. This means articulating the relationships, purposes, boundaries, and activities that encompass what you (or your organization, network) do. A sketch map can produce a simple way of articulating this quickly, inexpensively, requires and pen and paper and no appreciable skill in drawing. The way to do this is explained here and if you need help visualizing, XPlane has a great introduction to the language of visualization.
  • Create a system for gathering simple data on regular operations. This means determining what are the key things that draw your attention on a regular basis. This might mean everything from sales figures, attendance, networking activities — whatever you pay attention to and has meaning for you. A journal (some regular note-taking – whether electronic or not, shared or not) is an outstanding tool and is simple to use and interact with.
  • Establish a regular* time within your practice to review this data using a sensemaking process. This means asking questions about what things mean within the context of your strategy and overall aims. It might mean that you adjust your aims and strategy (i.e., determine they are not serving you) or it might require more or different data. [* what regular means is dependent on the nature of the issues you’re dealing with and the appropriate time scale. This might mean daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. After that, it’s not regular enough]
  • Generate opportunities for constructive interactions outside of your information ecosystem (i.e., talk to people). We learn socially. This means having discussions with different viewpoints to explore what you have learned. This might mean bringing in someone from outside of your team to provide an alternative perspective or hiring a consultant who has less vested interest in the content, but investment in you.

This requires time. It means making our thoughts — those mental models – visible whether through a It also requires a mirror. Without the ability to see what we are doing (sketch notes, journals – putting things down on paper or screen), discuss it, and process it, we are unlikely to perceive, contemplate, or shift our mental models.

While this is about time, the regular time we devote does not necessarily mean that systems change has to take a long time. But, it does take time if we make the time to open ourselves to new ways of seeing, thinking, and eventually doing.

That’s how change comes about.

Note: A great reference for those interested in learning more about mental models should check out the work from Shane Parrish and the folks at Farnam Street who have spent a lot of time (there it is again 🙂 ) studying and communicating mental models to help people learn about them.

Note: Where to start? You’ve made changes before — you can do this again. We’ve all made big changes at some point in our personal or organization’s life. The longer you’ve been doing the same thing, the more you might need outside help to see what’s right in front of you. If you want help, reach out; I might be able to help.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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