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What is a mental model? And why do they matter at work?

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.

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