You know that voice that’s chattering on as you’re giving a presentation, or telling a joke, or listening in a meeting, or meeting someone new? 

It’s that conversation in your head, delivering helpful guidance as you move through whatever activity you’re doing. The voice can tell you to give a little more or to pull back just a bit, provide a mental thumbs up or thumbs down, let you know if you’re confused.

Well that voice has a name and it’s called metacognition. Metacognition is the thinking we do about our thinking—questions such as: Do I understand this?, What do I already know about this? Where should I take this next?, and a great many more practical questions helping to transfer what we already know to new contexts and tasks.

Metacognition is the process we use to plan, monitor, and assess our learning, thinking, and doing. It’s wildly important because it’s how we build an awareness of our understanding and performance. 

A good example is watching a carpenter work and doing that, at least as I recall, is an exercise in silence with an occasional question between the screams of power tools—and Jerry would answer all of my questions when I hung around his shop, which was good for a curious kid who just happened to have a neighbor always working on something interesting.

There’s one project I remember more than the others. It was an outdoor sign for a local restaurant. It was big. It was intricate. And the idea of writing words using pieces of wood captured my attention. 

There’s the thing of having the skills to create a sign from wood. It required an experienced carpenter to create something like that, using tools to cut wood and join it again with glue, screws, and nails to create the curves and angles of words.

Then there’s the thing, even more impressive to think about now, of working through something he’d never created before. Perhaps he’d built other signs and certainly he was using skills he had honed on other projects, but he’d never brought those skills together for this project, for this sign. That required thinking about thinking. It required metacognition. 

He planned, monitored, and assessed his thinking, learning, and doing along the way—and not just toward the completion of the overall project but in every measurement, every cut, and every use of a nail, a screw, or glue.

We’re doing the same thing in whatever it is we’re currently engaged—how we start something, how we decide what to do first, then next, and next after that, how we check progress, and how we know when we’re finished.

It’s a thinking process that may not be front-and-center, but it could be, and perhaps it should be, because metacognition is how we get better at thinking, learning, and doing. It’s central to getting better at the work we do.

Thinking about our thinking is natural. We improve just by doing the thinking, learning, and doing we already do. It’s also something we can improve explicitly. 

Becoming aware of your metacognition is a start. Doing so can be discombobulating in the moment because it’s multitasking in that you’re doing something (like giving a presentation) and thinking about that doing (e.g., Does the audience understand the point I’m making?).

Since most of us are poor multitaskers, it’s better—from my experience—to try it first in a low-risk setting where forgetting the point you were intending to make isn’t detrimental to something important. 

How? is a good question to use—so not just reflecting on What am I learning? but adding How am I learning?, How should I work on it? is a good companion to What should I work on next?, and How am I thinking about it? can be added to What are my thoughts on this topic?

Metacognition leads to an increased awareness of self and context, which is required for working in complexity. Start by building an awareness of your metacognition. Go out there today and while you’re working at your desk or participating in a meeting, listen to that voice in your head. 

The thoughts are there, I promise.

Pretend like you have a new best friend, who just happens to be an alien from outer space, and you’re constantly having to explain to them how something on Earth works.

Like a grocery store. Whatever just came to your mind is part of your mental model of how a grocery store works. Now explain it to your new best friend. 

Where do you start? Do you give a lesson on commerce? Do you talk about why humans need food? Do you show them a recipe book? Do you give a lesson on food systems? Do you discuss the transformation of human society and the effects it’s had on how we source food?

Or do you grab a shopping cart, explain what it is, and begin shopping for groceries? Along the way you might explain: how to buy produce, why Cheez-Its are the snack of choice, what a butcher does, why oat milk is your preference—these are all mental models that combine with near-infinity number of other mental models to create a mental model of the grocery store. 

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Then you choose a check-out line (What’s a check out?) (What’s a queue?), unload your groceries onto a conveyor belt (What’s a conveyor belt?), watch as the clerk scans your items (What is a barcode?) (What is an optical scanner?), bag your items (Why do you need a bag?) (Where are you transporting these groceries?), presented with a total (What’s currency?) (How do you gain more currency?), and use your credit card to pay (What is credit?) (What is a credit card?) (What is payment processing?). 

It’s a lot right? And how much did you skip? That’s why mental models are important. They’re shortcuts. So every time we get hungry we don’t have to learn again what the heck a grocery store is.

Yet mental models can be improved! Coupons! Prepared foods! Cheese! Once your alien friend understands the concept of the grocery store, they can focus their energy on understanding additional mental models in the grocery store (like how to make sense of  the artisan cheese counter) while at the same time still improving their grocery store mental model with each new learning.

Soon a trip to the grocery store becomes so natural your alien friend is making phone calls to aliens at home while they shop, an activity that would have been impossible on the first trip. They’re looking for love as they pass other shoppers. They’re on a first-name basis with everyone in the bakery.

A mental model is an abstraction of a concept (grocery store), often multiple concepts (produce, check out registers, Cheez-Its, etc.), that gives us the ability to navigate through the day. Our mental models allow us to process overwhelming amounts of information rather easily. 

A problem can arise, however, when our mental models miss important details. Sometimes it’s because our mental models are too simple. Sometimes it’s as a result of missing new information because of our comfort with what we already know. Sometimes it’s because they are wrong to begin with. Sometimes it’s a combination of all the above.

We rely heavily on mental models at work to do our work. And one mental model that I’ve been improving in the last several years is how change happens in organizations. 

We’ve been conditioned to believe that change has to be a journey. But what if it isn’t? What if, as management exorcist Niels Pflaeging has concluded, it’s more like adding milk to coffee? Once a bit of milk has been splashed into a cup of coffee, the cup of coffee is different at that moment. Forever changed. No journey required. 

And what if resistance to change isn’t resistance at all but a very natural human process of transition, one that includes letting go of the known, going through a neutral zone, before a new beginning?

It’s possible this new mental model of change, one of adding milk to coffee and supporting people through transitions, will change the way you work, as it has for me. And it’s possible that you’ll continue to refine and improve this mental model of change as you use it and explore it. 

And hopefully—regardless of where you come out on milk, coffee, and transition—you now have reason to explore your existing mental models and how they guide your work successfully … or not. 

Because all mental models are wrong and some are more useful than others.