Thinking Ahead

with Warren Weertman

Date Posted: May, 15 2017

Understanding People's Mental Models to Unleash Creativity (Part 1)

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One advantage to living in extreme times is that it often happens that people don’t know what to do, which in turn can unleash creativity. This was a point raised by Richard Coles in his discussion with Annemie at this year’s PurpleBeach Experience.

But in such circumstances, it’s also important to try understand what people are saying so you can try create a shared meaning in order to move forward.

To understand what people are saying, you need to understand their mental models. We all have mental models and they are our ideas of how the world works.

So how do we create our mental models?

1. Creating Mental Models

The process of developing mental models is one of learning and linking imagination to action. But it’s also important to recognise that a lot of our beliefs of the world are self-generated and based on conclusions we draw from what we observe. These beliefs (or mental models) are based on four core assumptions:

  • our beliefs are the truth;
  • the truth is obvious;
  • our beliefs are based on real data; and
  • the data we use is the real data.

But understanding your mental models is just the first step. If you understand how mental models are formed, you then need to be able to analyse not only your mental models, but also the mental models of other people.

2. The Ladder of Inference

In order to understand both our mental models and the mental models of other people, we need to climb what Chris Argyris calls “the ladder of inference”. The ladder of inference is a mental pathway of increasing abstraction that leads to the creation of beliefs.

The rungs of the ladder of inference are (moving from the lowest rung to the highest):

  • Observable Data and Experiences: the events as they would be captured exactly as they happened;
  • Data: this is the data you select from what you observe;
  • Meanings: these are the meanings you attach to data you’ve observed and may be cultural and personal meanings;
  • Assumptions: these are the assumptions you make based on the meanings you add;
  • Conclusions: these are the conclusions you draw;
  • Beliefs: these are the beliefs you adopt about the world; and
  • Actions: these are the actions you take based on your beliefs.

Using the ladder of inference has the advantage in that it allows you to:

  • become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning;
  • make your thinking and reasoning more visible to others; and
  • inquire into others’ thinking and reasoning.

By understanding your mental models and those of others, you can hopefully create a shared meaning and understanding of the present so you can unleash your creativity to take advantage of these uncertain times.

Thought from the Lifeguard’s Hut

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers
- Erich Fromm


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