Welcome!

Our first topic is Unlearning Mental Models.

In this time of transformation, some of our most cherished assumptions and beliefs become inaccurate. To embrace the new model of value creation, you first need to unlearn obsolete ways of thinking and update your mental models for success in a digital world.

Why unlearning?

In times of transformation, it’s not just technology that gets obsolete. Our thinking does too. 

We think about learning as adding to what we already know. But sometimes what we already know gets in the way of learning something new. 

The mental models that used to be effective don’t work as well anymore, and we need to find new ones. This often requires as much unlearning as learning.

It’s like when the paint on a wall starts peeling. You have to strip off the old paint before you put on the new paint. 

In other words, to change what you do, you first have to change how you think.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
— The Big Short

Example: Look right

Mental models are often deeply ingrained in our mental and physical habits.

Consider the tourists who visit London from countries that drive on the right side of the road. It's easy to learn that you need to look right at a crosswalk. What's hard is unlearning the habit of looking left.

 
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Example: The Big Dig

When the landscape changes, we need new maps. 

This was the situation 15 years ago in Boston thanks to a project called the Big Dig. All the highways were moved from above-ground to below the city. The GPS devices at the time were of little use because their internal maps became obsolete.

This is the situation we find ourselves in today. The landscape of business has changed, but we haven't yet updated our mental maps of how to succeed and grow.

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The unlearning trapeze

Think of unlearning like making the leap from an untenable trapeze bar to a new one. 

It's often said that people resist change. But resistance is often quite rational and not as hard to overcome as we think. 

Imagine you are hanging from a trapeze bar. Everything is going fine, until the rope above you starts to fray. You look down, but there’s no net below you. 

People yell at you to let go and stop resisting the change. But what's the alternative? The rational thing to do is hang on as long as you can until another bar comes within reach. 

In this analogy, the first bar is the existing mental model, the fraying rope represents the forces that are making it obsolete, and the new bar is the new mental model. 

The process of unlearning is finding the new bar, getting it close enough to reach, making the jump from the old to the new, and then bringing others along with you.

“Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.”
— Margaret Shepard
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Help people make the leap

Three steps to help others shift their thinking.

First we need to shift our own thinking if we are going to ask others to make the jump too. Then we need to develop our skills in the process of helping others shift their thinking. 

1

Recognize when the rope is fraying

Recognize when your 
mental models are 
growing outdated.

2

Distinguish the old and new bars

Recognize when your mental models are growing outdated.

3

Bring the
new bar within reach

It’s not enough to show that the new bar is better. 

 

1. Recognize when the rope is fraying

Know when mental models are growing outdated.

Are there actions that once produced reliable results but are now inconsistent or less effective? Are you not sure what to do, but you don’t feel that more data or information would add clarity?  

These can be signs that the real problem lies with an outdated mental model. 

Another indicator is when you feel caught between two competing objectives. They seem mutually exclusive, but you really want to have both. For example, companies today want to be global and local, have scale and intimacy, achieve profit and purpose. 

Transcending tradeoffs like these takes a new kind of mindset.


2. Distinguish the old and new bars

Help clarify the differences.

The tricky thing about mental models is that they are deeply embedded and largely unconscious. 

Mental models are the lens through which we see the world. And like glasses, once we get used to them, we don’t notice they are there. 

Fortunately, language reveals our mental models. How we think is reflected in what we say. 

For example, consider the following two statements: “We are moving our data to the cloud” vs. “We are moving our company to the cloud.” 

These are not just semantic differences. They reflect very different mental models of cloud as an IT strategy or a business strategy.

Check out this video for a great example of how deeply ingrained mental models can be.

“The Backwards Brain Bicycle - Smarter Every Day 133” Uploaded by SmarterEveryDay

3. Bring the new bar within reach 

It’s not enough to show the new bar is better.

Moving to a new way of thinking has two risks. One risk is that people don’t see the new way as sufficiently different from the old, so they slip back into the default way of thinking. The other is that the new way is too different, leaving people no way to relate it to what they already know. 

The solution is to use a familiar image to build a bridge between the old and
the new.

The “horseless carriage”

To help people make the leap, describe the new in terms of the old.

In the beginning, motorized vehicles were called horseless carriages rather than automobiles because that’s what people could relate to. 

It was like a horse-drawn carriage but without the horse. Only over time did it take on its own label.

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We can see the same thing in phrases like “Web page,” “digital wallet,” “artificial intelligence” and “Internet of things.” One part is from the existing model and one part is from the new model. 

“Innovation is a mixture of the old and the new with a dash of surprise.”
— Al Etmanski
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Example: Steve Jobs

A great example of a “horseless carriage” is the announcement by Steve Jobs of the original iPhone in 2007.

He began by talking about how Apple was announcing three new products: a touch-screen music player, a mobile phone and an Internet communicator. Then he showed how this wasn’t three products but one. 

By doing this, he ensured that people understood the iPhone wasn’t just a phone, but had all three of these capabilities. 

Check out the video.

“Steve Jobs introduces iPhone in 2007” Uploaded by John Schroter 


Unlearning recap

In times of transformation, it’s not just technology that gets obsolete. Our thinking does too. 

Mental models are often deeply ingrained in our mental and physical habits.

Think of unlearning like making the leap from an untenable trapeze bar to a new one. 

Three steps to help others shift their thinking:

  1. Recognize when the rope is fraying.
    Know when mental models are growing outdated.

  2. Distinguish the old and new bars.
    Help clarify the differences.

  3. Bring the new bar within reach. Use a
    “horseless carriage” strategy to present the
    new in terms of the old.

 

Up Next

Next, we’ll look at Thinking Styles, a simple and effective tool to accelerate collaboration and enhance individual and team performance. 

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Go Deeper: 

Read “Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning” by Mark Bonchek

Read “The Perils of Confusing Mental Models and Business Models” by Mark Bonchek

Practice:

What’s a mental model you’ve had to unlearn in your career? 

  • Where are you “between trapeze bars”? Are there places where it’s clear that the old mental model doesn’t work anymore, but it’s not clear what the new one is? 

  • Can you think of time when someone tried to introduce a new mental model in your organization? What was the response, and what were the results?

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