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Practice 5: Seek to Change Associates’ Mental Models

6 October, 2015 - 11:15

The definition of insanity is applying the same approach over and over again, and expecting new results— the same is true about mental models. When organizational changes don’t work or when an organization repeatedly fails to meet its performance expectations, sometimes the dominant mental model, or paradigm, within an organization is to blame. Changing this dominant mental model is not easy since political capital is often tied up with particular models.First-order systems changes involve refinement of the system within an existing mental model. Second-order systems changes involve the unlearning of a previous mental model, and its replacement with a new and improved version. These changes do not occur on their own—second-order learning requires intention and focus on the history and identity of the overall system. 1

Barry Oshry writes poetically about the “dance of the blind reflex.” This reflex is a generalization of the mental models of various parts of the organizational system. Oshry argues that top executives generally feel burdened by the unmanageable complexity for which they are responsible. Meanwhile, frontline workers at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy feel oppressed by insensitive higher-ups. Furthermore, middle managers feel torn and fractionated as they attempt to link the tops to the bottoms. Furthermore, customers feel righteously done-to (i.e., screwed) by an unresponsive system. Interestingly, none of the four groups of players mentioned see their part in creating any of the “dance” described here. 2However, there is a way out of this problem. As Oshry notes,

We sometimes see the dance in others when they don’t see it in themselves; just as they see the dance in us when we are still blind to it. Each of us has the power to turn on the lights for others. 3

Peter Vaill uses the metaphor of “permanent white water” as an analogy for the learning environment that most organizations currently find themselves in. He argues that “learning to reflect on our own learning” is a fundamental skill that is required for simple survival. Vaill argues that learning about oneself in interaction with the surrounding world is the key to changing our mental models. He further suggests that the personal attributes that make this all possible are the willingness to risk, to experiment, to learn from feedback, and above all, to enjoy the adventure. 4