The Issue:

Common wisdom coined the phrase, "What you see is what you get," and it turns out that science is in hearty agreement with this perception. Research validates that we all pay selective attention to the whirling buzzing hum of daily life. And, the more complex and complicated our lives are, the more it is natural to yearn for mental and emotional structures and attitudes that simplify our situation and make it easier to choose between options for action.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, refers to our habitual ways of making sense out of the world, i.e., for coding and classifying the data of experience, as our "mental models." It is as though we all have internal theories about the world and how we should operate within it. Usually, these mental models function outside of conscious awareness and consist of a bundle of assumptions, recollections and meaning making activities we don't think about. Frequently, our mental models are highly functional, and there is no reason to inspect them. For example, when we're approaching a red light, we don't have to give much thought to the assumption that the people who have the green light have the right of way and that we should come to a stop.

However, there are plenty of times when our mental models and our mindsets (i.e., consistent points of view that we have about the world and people in it) are either out of date, incomplete or inaccurate in some way. Furthermore, the more ambiguous and complicated reality truly is, the more likely it is that one's mental models will be imperfect or incomplete in a way that obstructs thoughtful and creative problem solving. So, as Marcel Proust said, we often see things not as they are but as we are. We have learned to see situations and people in a particular kind of way that is limited and limiting.

Not paying attention to our own thought processes or having an uncritical point of view about our mental models invites trouble, especially in organizational and social life where it is almost certain that we'll be dealing with people who don't share our own point of view.

The Program:

Not Your Old Mental Model? is a program for in-tact teams that combines experiential exercises, group discussion and self-reflection to help participants become aware of unintended and self-limiting thoughts and behaviors. The specifics of each program may vary. In some instances, for example, the program may run for several days and utilize a range of creative thinking tools such as group construction projects and "mind mapping". In others, the process may be more time delimited.

What follows is a description of a one day version of this program that was designed by Michael Sales and Grady McGonagill for the leadership team of an international pharmaceutical company that has responsibility for over 1,200 employees and manages a market of over $2B for its products:

1) The program began with a playful, yet provocative, introduction to the power of mindsets and mental models: what are they and how they work.
2) A structured 2.5 hour process took the participants through:
an exploration of two of their "defining moments"- one positive and the other negative - in the company, (i.e., those events that were key in the formulation of their point of view about the company's culture and what life was going to be like for them personally).
the identification of "guardrails" in their part of the company, including:
• rules and traditions that don"t seem to make sense in light of current reality
• habitual patterns of action that work against openness and healthy risk taking, and
• ways of thinking within the functional context that keep the participants from seeing and thinking about the bigger picture and bigger issues
• the identification of guardrails that can truly be changed or influenced by the leadership group itself
• establishing some first steps that can be used to remove these guardrails
naming specific personal reflex mindsets that act as personal "guardrails," stifling one's own personal creativity and inventiveness
3) A structured 1.5 hour small group process focused recognizing and re-thinking the mindsets and the mental models that the participants have on some pressing business issue or relationship. Each member of the small group had five minutes to lay out:
a) an issue that he or she felt "stuck" around and
b) the mindsets he or she viewed it through. Than each got fifteen minutes of questioning and coaching by the other member of their small group to help him or her discover some new way of thinking about the problem.
4) A 2.5 hour reflection, small group and whole group process that worked with the "Big Assumptions" identified by each participant. A Big Assumption is one that prevents a person from committing fully to changes that would eliminate habits of the heart and mind that stand in the way of realizing one"s fullest potential. This work is based on some leading edge thinking by Professor Robert Kegan at Harvard, and has helped many people transcend self-limiting assumptions. Each participant received individualized follow up to this activity and, frequently, participants in"Big Assumption" work team up to give each other support to take risks and explore new options.

This program was well-received by participants and several reported making significant changes in their mindsets during follow up phone consultations.

Not Your Old Mental Model integrates well with several other New Context programs, including A Collaborative Approach to Problem Solving, The Idea Factory, Middle Power, and Executive Coaching.