If you seek transformational change, the most powerful work you can do with individuals, in churches and secular organizations is to examine the mental models at work. Very little deep change happens when mental models are not examined and changed. We come into this world a blank slate. Over time, we build ideas of how the world works, born of out of our life experience, and taught to us by family, friends and mentors and teachers. These ideas are like maps of the terrain we traverse. For the wisest among us, the maps are incomplete, and may contain distortions. Consider the map of the world when Columbus started his voyage to the Americas. Most in the West understood the world to be flat, and the existing maps depicted a flat world. People literally thought Columbus would sail right over the edge into the abyss.

Columbus saw things differently. He was an iconoclast. I’m reading a book called Iconoclast: a neuroscientist reveals how to think differently by Dr. Gregory Berns. Iconoclasts are those, like Columbus, who accomplish what everyone else thinks impossible. Berns says three things separate iconoclasts from the rest of us. They are wired to perceive things differently, they are wired with less fear of change and social isolation, and they have the social skills to convince others that they are right, and everyone else is wrong. Columbus illustrated all of these traits: he saw the world differently, overcame his fear of the unknown, and convinced the Queen to finance his voyage.

Columbus’ voyage forever changed the maps of the world, and shifted everyone’s mental models as well. Through His life and ministry, Jesus sparked a seismic shift of how God was perceived. The Apostles who took the Gospel to the world after Jesus’ death and resurrection overturned many assumptions of life, death and beyond. Within 300 years the new mental models they spread upended the Western world as Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire.

So, our mental models are paradigms we hold about how the world works.  They are like eyeglasses.  The world looks differently when I put on my glasses, but I soon forget I’m wearing them. We look at the world through our paradigms, not consciously aware that what we are seeing has been shaped by our lenses. We take what we perceive as reality, and don’t know how much previous experience distorts the picture. Our worldview becomes self-reinforcing.  We begin to filter out any information that doesn't support what we already believe. There is great power in mental models, because behavior, both conscious and unconscious flows out of our mental models.

The Iceberg Model illustrates this point. The events we see are like the tip of an iceberg. We like to look for immediate cause and effect, when often there is some delay between the two. If we look deep beneath the surface, we find mental models at the base of the iceberg. We build structures in our lives and organizations based on our mental models. Out of this structure comes repeating cycles of behavior, which demonstrate trends and patterns over time. These are at the root of the events we see on the surface. Yet, we often don’t look deep enough into the thinking to allow us to understand how our mental models drive behavior. For more on the Iceberg Model, look at this post.

Mental models are the bottom of the iceberg.  The bottom of the iceberg has torn the hull out of many enterprises and churches, just like the Titanic.  The key question at the mental model level is, "How does our thinking allow this to persist?"  Einstein said something like, “We can’t get out of this problem with the same thinking that got us into it.” 

Too often, as we examine a problem, discuss a strategy, or make a plan in discussion with others, we just present our conclusions.  We don’t really reveal the underlying assumptions that lead us to our conclusions.

Working with mental models is one of the five disciplines of the learning organization that Peter Senge outlines in his book The Fifth Discipline.  To work with mental models, each person is asked to present the data supporting their conclusion.  Oftentimes people sitting around a table have observed different data about a topic up for discussion or decision. Their differing conclusions are rooted in the meaning they have made of the data they observe.

When we are advocating for different conclusions, we don’t stop to consider that others are observing different data. When we peel back the conclusions and examine the data, the possibility of a larger, more complete picture of reality emerges. Mental models help us understand how the world works.  Unfortunately, our self-reinforcing paradigms keep us from seeing all the relevant data about any controversial situation.  In building organizations, people will build structures they think work the best.

The quality of relationship will often dictate whether we can hear and take in other people’s different views of reality. We are much more likely to listen to those we trust. When we do the hard work of building strong relationships amongst widely different people on a team, better ideas can emerge, because better thinking emerges from a group than an individual. Here’s an illustration of the point:

Read more about the Core Theory of Success here.

The best way to get leverage in any organization is to work with mental models.  They are foundational to everything else.  This is why I trained for several years with Robert Fritz to be an organizational structural consultant, because when you work at this level, deep change is possible.  It is really what the Christian walk is like.  As we start a  spiritual journey, St. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

The most powerful, positive change in our mental models comes as we surrender to God and live forward with a grateful heart, understanding that every good thing comes from Him.  Then, change in heart and mind becomes an ongoing process. However, to the extent that we are placing our identity in anything or anyone other than Jesus, we will short circuit our spiritual growth. With our identity fixed elsewhere, our mental models will evoke behavior that is counter productive. See here what happens when our Identity limits spiritual growth.