WHAT IS A MENTAL
“Mental models are deeply ingrained
assumptions, generalizations, or even
pictures or images that influence how we
understand the worlds and how we take action.
Very often, we are not consciously aware of our
mental models or the effect they have on our
- The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge,
“…an explanation of someone's thought process
about how something works in the real world. It
is a representation of the surrounding world, the
relationships between its various parts and a
person's intuitive perception about their own acts
and their consequences. Our mental models help
shape our behavior and define our approach to
solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm)
and carrying out tasks”
• Mental models are subtle but powerful. Subtle,
because we usually are unaware of their effect.
Powerful, because they determine what we pay
attention to, and therefore what we do.
• Mental models are strongly conservative: left
unchallenged, they will cause us to see what we have
always seen: the same needs, the same opportunities,
the same results. And because we see what our
mental models permit us to see, we do what our
mental models permit us to do.
ARE MENTAL MODELS
“What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about
what you can hear, what you can smell, taste and feel then real is
simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”
– Morpheus, Matrix (1999)
ARE MENTAL MODELS
RIGHT OR WRONG?
• “Essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful” –
• “…The problems with mental models lie not in whether they
are right or wrong – by definition, all models are
simplifications. The problems with mental models arise when
they become implicit – when they exist below the level of our
awareness…because we remain unaware of our mental models,
the models remain unexamined. Because they are unexamined,
the models remain unchanged. As the world changes, the gap
widens between our mental models and reality, leading to
increasingly counterproductive actions” – The Fifth Discipline
CAN MENTAL MODELS IMPACT
• “…Mental models of what can or cannot be done
in different management settings are no less
deeply entrenched. Many insights into new
markets or outmoded organizational practices fail
to get put into practice because they conflict with
powerful, tacit mental models” – The Fifth
• “…the most crucial mental models are those
shared by key decision-makers. Those models, if
unexamined, limit an organization's range of
actions to what is familiar and comfortable.”
WE WILL MAKE UP FOR
THIS DELAY BY …
Adding more people
• …New Silver Bullet!
LET’S EXPLORE MORE
Customers who complain are just troublemakers
People leave jobs for higher salary
The Customer is always right
Sitting late in office shows commitment
Gen Y is irresponsible
MODELS AT GM
• GM is in the business of making money, not cars
• Cars are primarily status symbols. Styling is therefore
more important than quality
• American car market is isolated from rest of the
• Workers don’t have an important impact on
productivity or product quality
• Everyone connected with the system has no need for
more than a fragmented, compartmentalized
understanding of the business
LADDER OF INFERENCE
The "ladder of inference” - a term coined by Professor Chris Argyris - is a
metaphor that shows how rapidly we can leap to knee-jerk conclusions with little
data and no intermediate thought process, as if rapidly climbing up a ladder in
You start at
which is so
self-evident and within the
that it would space of a few
show up on a seconds, leap
recorder (Larry assumptions
has yawned at a (Larry is bored),
care about this
Since most of
openly, there is
no way to
LADDER OF INFERENCE
The ladder of
from. The data is
long since lost to
HOW TO USE LADDER OF
• Reflection: Becoming more aware of
your own thinking and reasoning
• Advocacy: Making your thinking and
reasoning more visible to others
• Inquiry: Inquiring into others'
thinking and reasoning
HOW CAN WE USE MENTAL
MODELS FOR POSITIVE RESULTS?
If mental models can impede
learning – freezing companies
and industries in outmoded
practices – why can’t they also
help accelerate learning?
• Skills of reflection concern slowing down
our own thinking processes so that we can
become more aware of how we form our
mental models and the ways they influence
• Inquiry skills concern how we operate in
face-to-face interactions with others,
especially in dealing with complex and
• Facing up to distinctions between espoused theories
(what we say) and theories-in-use (the implied theory
in what we do)
• Recognizing “leaps of abstractions” (noticing our
jumps from observing to generalization)
• Exposing the “left-hand column” (articulating what
we normally do not say)
• Balancing inquiry and advocacy skills (skills for
effective collaborative learning)
• Powerful technique for beginning to “see” how
our mental models operate in particular
• It reveals ways that we manipulate situations to
avoid dealing with how we actually think and
feel, and thereby prevent a counterproductive
situation from improving.
• Me: How did the presentation go?
• Bill: Well, I don’t know. It’s really too early to tell.
Besides, we’re breaking new ground here.
• Me: well, what do you think we should do? I believe
the issues you were raising are important.
• Bill: I am not sure. Let’s just wait and see what
• Me: You may be right, but I think we may need to do
more than just wait.
EXAMPLE WITH LEFT-HAND
What I am thinking
What is said
Everyone says the presentation was a
Does he really not know how bad it was?
Or is he not willing to face up to it?
Me: How did the presentation go?
Bill: Well, I don’t know. It’s really too
early to tell. Besides, we’re breaking new
He really is afraid to see the truth. If
only he had more confidence, he could
probably learn from a situation like this. I
can’t believe how disastrous that
presentation was to our moving ahead.
Me: well, what do you think we should
do? I believe the issues you were raising
Bill: I am not sure. Let’s just wait and see
I’ve got to find a way to light a fire under
Me: You may be right, but I think we
may need to do more than just wait.
• When operating in pure advocacy, the
goal is to win the argument.
• Pure inquiry is also limited.
• When inquiry and advocacy are
combined, the goal is no longer to “win
the argument” but to find the best
• Make your own reasoning explicit
• Encourage others to explore your
• Encourage others to provide
• Actively inquire into other’s views
that differ from your own
WHEN INQUIRING INTO
• If you are making assumptions about
other’s views, state your assumptions clearly
and acknowledge that they are assumptions
• State the ‘data’ upon which your
assumptions are based
• Don’t bother asking questions if you are
not genuinely interested in other’s response
WHEN YOU ARRIVE AT
• As what data or logic might change
• Ask if there is any way you might
together design and experiment (or
some other inquiry) that might
provide new information
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