Break Free of Your Mental Models

By: Jennifer Baker, CAE, and Ray Saputelli, CAE

We all have mental models that help us process the world we see. We even have mental models about association membership. If association leaders seek to understand what those models are, both in themselves and in others, they can create the kind of dialogue and mutual understanding that propels their organizations past the status quo. (Titled "How You See the World" in the print edition.)

In the mid 1990s, Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, said, "Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, exhausting itself while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble."

Sound familiar? Havel was describing what was going on in the Czech Republic at the time, but his words capture perfectly what's happening today as association business models are increasingly stressed by the expanding options for community and commerce offered by new technologies.

In this era of economic uncertainly and rapid change, association executives must confront the fact that, as Peggy Hoffman, CAE, president of Mariner Management and Marketing, eloquently put it in a comment to a recent Acronym blog post, "... people are fundamentally changing what and how they value the things that associations typically provide, especially this model of membership as we understand it." The question, then, is about how we confront this transitional environment we find ourselves in and positively position ourselves for the future. One way is to actively examine the mental models that underlie our approach to association membership.

Mental Models: The Boxes We're In

When someone says "think outside the box," box is a simple metaphor for a mental model. Mental models are the assumptions that shape what we choose to pay attention to, and they drive our actions. Our mental models are deeply ingrained, often in our unconscious minds.

Kenneth Craik, a Scottish philosopher and psychologist, coined the term mental model in the 1940s. In his writings, Craik described a process whereby our minds construct small-scale models of reality from perception, imagination, or interpretation and use those models to reason, to underlie explanations, and to anticipate events. This idea of a modeling process is congruent with what neuroscientists are discovering about how our brains function. Rather than operating like a camera that decodes all of the pixels of information that come our way, research is revealing that our brains act more like a cartoonist drawing caricatures of what we see based on our mental models.

So, mental models serve an important purpose as a form of mental shorthand that allows us to make sense of incoming information. The downside is that mental models, by their very nature, are incomplete and can contain errors, because our brains fill in gaps with assumptions. And, like any model, a mental model provides a simple representation of larger or complex phenomena.

Here is an example of how mental models affect what we see and shape how we act, using the "ladder of inference" framework for understanding mental models outlined by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization:

1. I take in observable data and experiences. I observe a politician making a statement that seems to contradict a campaign promise.

2. I make a selection of data from what's observed. I select the politician's statement as my focus.

3. I add meaning (cultural and personal). I interpret the statement to be a lie and a demonstration of the politician's lack of integrity.

4. I make assumptions based on my added meaning. I assume the politician is another political sellout.

5. I draw conclusions from my assumptions. I conclude that every politician lies and cheats.

6. I adopt beliefs about the world. I adopt the belief that, because every politician lies and cheats, voting doesn't make a difference.

7. I take actions based on my beliefs. I decide that I'm not going to bother to vote anymore.

The trip from rungs two to six on our mental ladders often happens quickly and without much conscious thought, and we apply this modeling process constantly. If left unexamined, our mental models can constrain our ability to accurately assess the environment, impede our learning, and keep us wedded to outmoded practices and schools of thought.

Mental Models in Associations

Of course, our mental models are at work in associations every day. And, as Charles Jacobs, author of Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons From the Latest Brain Science, points out, "The world that exists in our heads isn't necessarily the same for all people." So not only are we all using mental models to interpret our world, but we're also all doing it differently.

Practically speaking, this means that individual leaders and staff within association management teams may be operating with fundamentally different understandings of key issues, including

  • What it means to win;
  • What quality work looks like;
  • What business we're in;
  • What is in our control and what is out of our control;
  • What the right approach is;
  • What constitutes risk;
  • What constitutes acceptable risk;
  • The role of technology;
  • Causation of events.

The last particular model in the list can lead us to focus on what we see—e.g., use of tools such as social media or mobile devices—and blind us to more fundamental changes in how people learn and connect.

On a larger scale, we have a variety of mental models in associations that are specific to membership, such as

  • Membership is everyone's job.
  • Membership is a financial transaction.
  • Members are a liability.
  • Members are an asset to be managed.

Any specific mental model is neither "good" nor "bad." Rather, the way in which we apply mental models—or maybe our failure to recognize their existence at all—can lead us to decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information. In the realm of association management, our mental models can prevent us from meeting new challenges with innovation and creativity. Further examination of the mental models related to membership brings these potential pitfalls to light.

Most of us who have considered ourselves association management professionals for more than five minutes have heard someone tell us that membership is everyone's job. To some extent, this may be true. Every person in every position at your association may at some time influence a member's (or prospective member's) perception of membership value. This mental model may, for example, lead us to be certain that something as simple as handling member contacts is handled in a manner most convenient to the member. It may cause a manager to create an environment that empowers everyone in a small-staff association to attempt to "help" a member with a problem. However, it may also be the reason that we ignore the challenge of operations and quality-management theories such as Shigeo Shingo's "Poka-Yoke" concept, which suggests that if a task is everyone's job, it's no one's responsibility. The obvious problem with this mental model is that, if unrecognized, it may allow us to completely ignore that no one has ultimate responsibility for membership. While perhaps it is absurd to suggest that association professionals would allow membership to be "no one's responsibility," it does suggest the inherent problem with an unrecognized or unchallenged mental model.

Similarly, one might find some truth in each of the other membership mental models mentioned above, and yet these mental models clearly move us from membership decisions that are member centric to decisions based more on the association's needs. While there may be associations and organizations that can survive with these mental models of membership, it is likely that none of these models will lead us to even begin to consider membership strategies that focus on innovative member services that meet our members "where they are." These and other mental models affect the role we play with our members and whether we act as "governors" implementing membership rules and regulations or architects or "business-savvy CEOs" engaged in planning, designing, and implementing vibrant, successful communities. They also affect our understanding of what membership success means and whether we choose to thrive or maintain the status quo.

Dissonance among mental models can lead association managers to ignore, dismiss, or reject important data or focus on the wrong data in the environment. This, in turn, can lead to lost opportunities for organizational learning and evolution in the service of achieving mission-related goals.

If we leave mental models unexamined, we also risk sabotaging the chances for success of implementation of new ideas and approaches because leaders, staff, and members are unlikely to adopt new ways that conflict with their assumptions about how the association can or should work. In addition, as the change occurs faster with every passing year, the gaps between reality and our mental models of the way the world works can become wider faster, and we are more prone to falling out of sync with our environment and our members.

Working With Mental Models

The good news is that we can change our mental models. New ideas can chemically change what goes on in the brain, and by letting new ideas in we can change the way we think, which leads to changes in how we act.

The key is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many mental models serve us as individuals and as organizations. They help us successfully maneuver in the world and manage the information and decisions we encounter every day.

What we need to recognize is that others may not share our assumptions about how the world could or should work. We need to bring our mental models out into the open and think about them collaboratively and critically to decide which ones best serve our associations. This requires a commitment to moving beyond discussion, to dialogue. Peter Senge beautifully describes the difference: Discussion can often take a competitive turn, in which ideas are heaved back and forth and result in winners and losers, while dialogue is a genuine, free-flowing process of thinking together to discover insights not attainable individually.

Steps to managing mental models include surfacing them, testing them, and then improving them as needed. Senge's Fifth Discipline Fieldbook provides excellent instruction in the discipline of bringing mental models to light and working with them effectively. The process requires us to

1. Face up to gaps between what we say and what we do, such as when we say we want to build community for our members but allow barriers to real connection to exist in the way we structure our membership offers.

2. Recognize when we jump from observation to generalization, such as when we observe a member or group of members acting in a particular way and we leap to the belief that all members act or will act in that way.

3. Expose what we're really thinking.

4. Hone our skills so that we strike a balance between advocating our own views and making inquiries of others to gain insights on their views and their input on our views.

We must recognize that there are functional and dysfunctional forms of both advocacy and inquiry. When we advocate, we should focus on testing ("Here's what I say, what do you think of it?") rather than dictating or politicking. When we inquire, rather than interrogate, we should first observe through active bystanding and sensing and then seek to clarify and interview to learn others' points of view and the rationales behind those views.

Are You Ready to Embrace New Worlds?

It's important to note that working with mental models can trigger emotions and may lead you down a very different path than the one your association is on today.

The benefit of working with mental models is that the process can generate new insights that can be used to create a shared understanding about fundamental matters—as simple as what success means—that can be used to guide practical decisions about new membership models, strategies, and tactics.

To reap this benefit requires association managers to suspend all assumptions and create a safe space in which collective thinking can occur. This requires commitments to openness (honestly engaging in difficult issues so that everyone learns), merit (making decisions based on the best interests of the association), genuine curiosity, making reasoning explicit, asking others about their reasoning without being critical or accusatory, and true dialogue.

In their article "From Mental Models to Transformation: Overcoming Inhibitors to Change" in Harvard Business Review, Jerry Wind and Colin Crook offer nine specific strategies for generating new mental models (see sidebar below). Like Wind and Crook, we propose that working with and managing mental models in associations is not an abstract exercise, but rather it is a key competency for success in the 21st century. "[Associations] with staying power will have the capability to challenge and, when necessary, change their mental models to embrace new worlds," they write. Are you ready?

Jennifer Baker, MSW, CAE, is director of the executive department at the American Physical Therapy Association in Alexandria, Virginia. Ray Saputelli, MBA, CAE, is executive vice president of the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians in Trenton, New Jersey. Emails: [email protected],
[email protected]

Sidebar: 9 Strategies for Generating New Models

Based on "From Mental Models to Transformation: Overcoming Inhibitors to Change" by Jerry Wind and Colin Crook, Harvard Business Review, April 2009.

Bring in the radicals. Even heretical ideas may open thinking in new directions. Seek the input of lapsed members, consumers of your members' products and services, or leaders of organizations from industries far different than yours.

Challenge assumptions. Many associations struggle with old mental models about ownership and control of information and, as a result, are struggling with how to integrate social media. Confronting association dogmas can help end such struggles.

Travel and explore new ideas. Howard Schultz created the idea for Starbucks after an inspiration on a trip to Europe. Arrange time to visit colleagues, "shadow" an association office, or participate in study trips in the United States or abroad.

Zoom in and zoom out. Look at detailed operational issues but still keep an eye on broader shifts, opportunities, and threats they present. Many healthcare associations, for example, are now taking a broader view out of necessity in the new world created by healthcare reform.

Destroy your brand. GE challenged leaders of its units to destroy their own brands, revealing both vulnerabilities and creative options for rethinking their businesses. Associations can reap the same benefits by taking time to probe the tenets of their brands.

Create interdisciplinary diversity. Break down silos. For example, in one association, the education and advocacy staff have been challenged to work together to create member education that supports the advocacy goals of the association.

Idealized design. Reinventing the world from a blank slate frees creative thinking from the past. Some associations have experimented with an entirely virtual office as a result of this type of thinking.

Scenario planning. Consider your unthinkable futures. One association executive recently told her staff that the organization could no longer count on revenue from dues or its annual meeting and then challenged her staff to brainstorm how the organization might continue to serve its industry. The result was both a series of new service offerings as well as a staff restructuring that led to more productivity.

Experimentation. Does your mental model of the employer-employee relationship encourage and empower creativity or stifle it? Don't be afraid to try out new approaches.

Additional Resources

Jennifer Baker, CAE, and Ray Saputelli, CAE