Part 3- Mental Models & Personal Mastery

Mental Models

We all come to work with assumptions that are so embedded in our behaviors and thinking that we do not question them. For the most part, this is a healthy way to respond to the world. We assume that most things will be the same today as they were yesterday and that the ways we have responded to issues will remain relevant in the future.

But in the fast paced world of today, with new challenges and new global competitors it is important to understand our assumptions, articulate them, and decide which are still relevant and which are not. Pete Senge called these assumptions our mental models — those operating models about business, organizations, our products and services and about employees that need to be examined.

Some of the common assumptions we hold are that organizations need to be organized in hierarchies, that employees need titles, that everyone needs to be physically present, that working from 8 am to 5 pm is a good norm, that budgets and deadlines are important, that software needs to be developed by our in-house team, and that only certain people need certain information within the firm.

Apple challenged the typical mental model of developing software applications in-house and keeping them proprietary. Instead,  Apple experimented with a new form of software development that led to rapid revenue generation for both itself and the developers.  They did this by opening the iPhone and iPad operating system to external developers who quickly wrote thousands of apps. Rather than try to anticipate customer needs and develop all their own software, Apple challenged its own model and created a highly profitable new business which has been emulated by many other firms.

Cisco System has been experimenting with reducing hierarchy by focusing on letting teams manage themselves, set their own working relationships, and widely share with each other.  They have numerous cross-functional teams that have been creative and have saved money and produced solid business results.  The world is so complex and product and customer needs are so intertwined that no one person can possibly have the knowledge to make good decisions.  Teams are much better equipped to deal with complexity and ambiguity which are hallmarks of this emerging century.  Teams can tap into the diversity of experience and knowledge within itself to discuss, examine and come to a consensus decision of high quality.

Information and transparency are also central to the success of these attempts.  Silence and secrets are the greatest enemies of creativity and employee engagement.  When management controls information and restricts who can know certain things about finances or product development, innovation declines along with employee commitment. Many excellent and highly valued employees have left their employers because of business uncertainty, lack of open communication and a sense that management was keeping secrets from them. What employees strive for is an understanding of trends and issues that affect them and their work.

Ideo shares information widely, even solicits employee opinions on what decisions it should make concerning cost cutting, for example, and allows employees the freedom to contribute in a way that best matches their own capabilities with the needs of the firm.  This transparent, team-based, non-hierarchal model embraces most of Senge’s disciplines and has resulted in successful outcomes in record time.

By challenging assumptions, trying new ways, and being open to change organizations will better weather doing business is this complex world.

Personal Mastery

Know thyself is a concept as old as the Greeks, but few of us take the time to really find what our core beliefs, passions and strengths are. Even fewer organizations realize how important it is for employees to find meaning and passion in their work.  By letting employees take more control of what they do and how they do it, organization build commitment and employees more readily take it upon themselves to build up their competencies and gain new skills. Many of us find our real passion in our hobbies, rather than our work, unfortunately.  Dave Ulrich, a well-known human resources expert and professor at the University of Michigan has written a book called The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Win.  In this book he discusses why helping employees indentify their personal strengths and providing them opportunities to use and improve those strengths is one way to build more successful organization.

We have known for a long time that those who are in harmony with their work, have passion and are excited by what they are doing and who have a greater purpose in their work than making money are the happiest and most productive. Yet, organizations have shied away from helping employees take more responsibility for their work and from providing the means to improve their skills.  This has been partly due to a mental model that personal reflection and development are not appropriate corporate activities and partly due to a fear that once people truly know themselves, they might want to leave. Some organizations also are afraid of losing what they perceive of as control over the activities of the employee if they allow someone to make their own decisions and do what they think is best.

Of all of Senge’s disciplines this is the one that is probably the least acted upon and the least visible but has the potential within it for vast improvements in innovation, productivity and engagement.