Good evening, and I hope you had a relaxing weekend.

I was asked to do some consulting for a public defender’s office in another state. They are working with new lawyers and training them to be public defenders, and wanted help making their training more in line with best practices in adult learning. This was a very interesting challenge, because almost all my work has been within the public schools, so I can usually make some assumptions about what concepts people are familiar with and what terminology they use. At the same time, I’m also trying to write something on adult learning for another project, and I’m still working on my list of questions that lead to the best decisions.

All these ideas came together this weekend when I went back to Senge’s The Fifth Discipline to read Chapter 10, Mental Models. Not only that, he talks about scenario planning (which I wrote about in this Coaching Letter). Mental models are the representations we carry around in our heads because we can’t possibly know everything. I have a very elaborate mental model for schooling but a really pathetic one for how a car works. Some of my mental models could also be characterized as heuristics (“whenever people talk, they are talking about themselves”), and some reveal biases, assumptions, and insecurities (“all the people I work with are smarter than I am”). The idea of mental models is closely related to schema theory in reading, and to framing and cognitive biases and system I and system II in psychology.

Our mental models get in our way when they inhibit our ability to see the world more clearly, or inhibit our self-awareness of the effect that our mental models have on our ability to see clearly. This point is brought out deep in This article in HBR by Pierre Wack of Shell.

Every manager has a mental model of the world in which he or she acts based on experience and knowledge. When a manager must make a decision, he or she thinks of behavior alternatives within this mental model. When a decision is good, others will say the manager has good judgment. In fact, what has really happened is that his or her mental map matches the fundamentals of the real world. We call this mental model the decision maker’s “microcosm”; the real world is the “macrocosm.”…

There is also a corporate view of the world, a corporate microcosm… A company’s perception of its business environment is as important as its investment infrastructure because its strategy comes from this perception. I cannot overemphasize this point: unless the corporate microcosm changes, managerial behavior will not change; the internal compass must be recalibrated.

From the moment of this realization, we no longer saw our task as producing a documented view of the future business environment five or ten years ahead. Our real target was the microcosms of our decision makers: unless we influenced the mental image, the picture of reality held by critical decision makers, our scenarios would be like water on a stone. This was a different and much more demanding task than producing a relevant scenario package.

We don’t always know what we don’t know, and if that’s the case then we are not always able to figure out that we don’t know as much as we think we do, or what we think we know is somehow flawed. Senge summarized this issue as “the way you see the problem is the problem”, which I love, and I wrote about in this Coaching Letter. The trouble is, how do you translate this into a question that would help you make better decisions? “The eye cannot see itself” is another line in Chapter 10. If it’s not possible to gain insight into the limitations of one’s own mental models, is the only solution, then, to find someone else to probe your assumptions about how the world works, what is possible, and what is impossible?

If so, then the next question on my list of questions to help you make better decisions is: Who is going to help you surface, scrutinize, test and complexify your mental model of this issue? Interestingly, that phrase is also on the Center’s one-page guide for facilitating adult learning. Funny how these ideas all swirl together, isn’t it?

Oh, and back to the public defender’s office. Turned out that a big part of their challenge was the mental model that their trainers had for coaching. As my client put it: “What we end up seeing is that newer coaches are more comfortable going line by line through the opening statement saying “this was good” or “this should have been” … on and on and on. While some learners respond to that format, for many it’s either discouraging or “in one ear and out the other” because it’s too much information without proper time to process.”

Luckily, it just so happens that I have this perfect mental model of coaching…

If you need help surfacing, interrogating, or challenging your mental model, please call me.  And if you have any feedback for how to make these Coaching Letters more useful to you, please send it my way. Have a great week, Isobel

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