Do you ever wonder why people refuse you to consider new ideas or accept change? A secret of good leaders will help you understand their reluctance.

First, remember that an organization is a system. Managing through mental models requires a deep understanding of the system in place.

All systems left unattended will naturally find their state of disorganization. This is the principle of entropy. We could also refer to it as the “random capacity of the system.”

Your problem grows . . .

Most organizations want to improve. Increase customers, revenue, employee engagement. But you have a problem in your organization. Your improvement efforts suffer if you do not address the underlying problems within the system. When you try to grow, you also grow the problems.

Then you wonder why you can’t achieve the results you desire or expect. Unmanaged systems increase in complexity. Improvements (which always result in change) become increasingly more difficult. You see the Effect, But What Is the Cause?

Managing Through the Lens of Mental Models

In Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animations Studio, describes four ideas that help inform the way he manages. Creativity thrives when you tap into your “beginner’s mind, which opens you to new ways of thinking and making.

“Paying attention to the present moment without letting your thoughts and ideas about the past and the future get in the way is essential. Why? Because it makes room for the views of others.”

Understanding systems and how you work within them requires reaching deep into the mental models of people. Peter Senge defines mental models as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.” (The Fifth Discipline)

Idea #1

Our models of the world so distort what we perceive that they can make it hard to see what is right in front of us.

Everyone views the world through their frame of reference. Developed over time, you may not realize how that frame impacts your interpretation of events and ideas. Unless you can suspend your preconceptions, seeing from a different point of view becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Idea #2

We don’t typically see the boundary between new information coming in front outside and our old, established mental models—we perceive both together, as a unified experience.

Blinded by your mental model, you perceive new input through your lens. For example, you may tell me that I can trust a colleague to complete a task for the team. But if I perceive that individual as untrustworthy, your belief in them doesn’t change my mental model about them.

Idea #3

We unknowingly get caught up in our interpretations, we become inflexible, less able to deal with the problems at hand.

You see this most clearly when people on the team dig in their heels around an issue or a solution. Nothing you can say or do can convince them to look at the problem from a different perspective. Discussion can become confrontational, passive-aggressive, or shut down.

Idea #4

People who work or live together…have, by virtue of proximity and shared history, models of the world that are deeply (sometimes hopelessly) intertwined with one another.

If you join an established team or take a new position, you may encounter a team entrenched in their way of conducting business. Team members ignore your contribution to new approaches as impractical or impossible.

In Summary

My observations within organizations bears truth to Catmull’s ideas. Even when leaders of organizations seek improvement, lack of awareness of these four ideas often stymies the best of intentions.

Keep in mind that as the number of people increases, you will experience a relentless drift toward inflexibility. The more rigid and immovable the team becomes, the more stymied you remain in the status quo and myopic solutions.

“Just as individuals have biases and jump to conclusions because of the lens through which they view the world, organizations perceive the world through what they already know how to do.” —Ed Catmull

Your mental models have a powerful influence on how you lead the system. Effective management of complex systems depends on an awareness of your own and others’ mental models.

Remember these four ideas as you collaborate or manage a team or an organization of 2,000. Two questions to ask yourself:

  • How can these ideas support how you manage the system in place?
  • What changes could this bring to your leadership actions?

And always—

Be kind. Be brave. Be you.

Photo: “Perspective at the Colosseum” by Kathryn A. LeRoy