When you think back to six short weeks ago, did you ever anticipate life as we knew it then would be virtually (pun intended) turned on its head in a matter of weeks? The global pandemic is like nothing I have experienced in my lifetime and I imagine the same goes for most of you. And while we are not yet on the other side of our new normal, I have wondered… what have we learned?
I know in many ways we are still learning — I think that will continue for some time. But it is not too soon to question ourselves in this regard. Reflecting and questioning are critical skills of leaders. It is also the foundation to learning. As leaders, we should be trying to learn and grow from our experiences, both as individuals and as organizations. There may be no better time than now to reflect and question.
Mental models defined
Last weekend, as I started to reflect on what COVID 19 has taught me so far, my reflections brought me back to something I experienced at the beginning of my consulting career. Early on, I was exposed to the idea of mental models and the importance of creating learning organizations.
I was first introduced to mental models as part of system thinking training, centered on Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. Senge defined mental models as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.” Senge defined learning organizations as “a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capacities to create results they really care about.”
It’s important to note, mental models are not necessarily bad. In some ways, mental models help us make faster decisions and take action more confidently. We recognize a situation and we apply our mental model based on past success. This is true of all of us; we all use mental models — we’re human and it’s a very natural, conditioned behavior. We may not even realize we are doing it. And that’s the point.
Most mental models operate in silence
To uncover your own mental models, you really need to question why you are acting a certain way. You need to challenge your own assumptions about how the world works. Most of us do not question our mental models or our assumptions. We are “too busy.” In fact, we hold on to our mental models dearly. It is our wisdom; it is how we process and understand both our unique and collective experiences.
For some of us, we may go our whole lives, never once asking, “Could there be a different way?” Until something shakes us at the core.
COVID 19 did just that. It has challenged our assumptions of the world — it has given us no other choice. It’s forced us to question our mental models. Yes, it’s scary. In no way am I downplaying any part of this. As a professional, a leader and a human, I see that the virus has altered our lives in ways big and small. It has forced us to change. Change under normal circumstances can be frightening. But most of the time, change is a choice — and you can choose to either embrace it or maintain the status quo. YOU decide. But not this time. This time the decision was made for us.
And herein lies a pretty huge opportunity
We have been dealing with unprecedented circumstances — those that come with no playbook, or guidelines or best practices. But these circumstances do bring an opportunity to learn and grow as individuals and organizations. An opportunity to become learning organizations; to “enhance our collective abilities to achieve results we care about.” An opportunity to be better.
As a leader, I constantly question myself and others (they love me for this I’m sure). I challenge myself and my team to think differently. But even so, I don’t think I’m pushing hard enough on myself and those around me to challenge our assumptions. Make no mistake — it’s hard to question your own biases and assumptions. It’s not natural or comfortable. But I’m committed to challenging mental models in this new normal — and pushing us to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I am committed to challenging assumptions because I believe doing so will lead to enhancing the capability of my entire team and our collective results.
Time to challenge long-held assumptions
Some commonly held (and comfortable) types of assumptions I plan to challenge going forward:
- Challenge the assumption that there is a social stigma associated with placing life, not work, at the center of our priorities (this is one I have been actively challenging for years in a course teach at Villanova University called Managing Yourself and Your Career)
- Challenge the assumption that client contact and relationship building is best done face to face
- Challenge the assumption that people need to be seen to be managed; if you can’t see them, you can’t trust them
- Challenge the assumption that physical offices are needed for work to happen
- Challenge the assumption that technology is intrusive to our lives
- Challenge the assumption that organizations cannot be trusted to care
COVID-19 has forced us to find a different way, perhaps a better way in each of these areas. I plan to ask my team to add to this list and I will share what we learn.
What about you? A learning organization doesn’t have to be those who reside within the same four walls. Our Front and Centered community may be one of the strongest learning organizations around, so please share. As our current situation evolves into long-lasting new mental models — our new normal — what assumptions are you challenging?