Project Management

Understanding your mental models can help sharpen PM skills

Becoming more aware of your mental models, or preconceptions, can help you become a more nimble project manager. See how to make your mental models more conscious and explainable and learn how they relate to the discipline of personal mastery.


The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward, says Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. Last time, we discussed the various mental models of project management. Once we understand what we really believe, we can more easily offer our underlying reasoning to the scrutiny of others. And if we’ve done sufficient work on our personal mastery skills, we’ll have the ego strength to survive having our assumptions challenged. According to Senge, the true discipline of mental models lies in cultivating our ability to have a "learningful" conversation. The hallmark of this type of communication is that it allows us to:
  • Recognize leaps of abstractions, or the tendency to go from the specific to the general.
  • Consciously expose the “left-hand column” by articulating or at least recognizing the subtext beneath our words.
  • Balance the skill of inquiry and advocacy.
  • Face up to distinctions between our espoused theories (what we say) and model-in-use (what we actually believe based on our actions).

Let's take a closer look at each of these aspects of mental models.

Previous articles in this series
The first two articles in our exploration of Peter Senge's core disciplines discussed personal mastery and introduced the concept of mental models:

Leaps of abstraction
Learning to recognize leaps of abstraction begins by being conscious of it in our own thinking. When we want to be clear that we’re reaching a valid conclusion, Senge suggests asking the following questions (based on Argyris’ ladder of abstractions):
  • What is the specific event or fact you have observed?
  • What conclusions can you reach from this?
  • If those conclusions are true, what other ramifications might it have?
  • What future actions do you assume will result from this?
  • What actions might be required on your part to deal with the now foreseen future events?

Although Senge intended this to be a generic process we might apply to all our thinking, I’ve found that in a project context, it's most useful to shorten it to a simple question: Where am I borrowing trouble? I always joke that project managers are paid to be paranoid. But as with most things, a particular mindset can be carried too far. As project managers, we spend a great deal of our time scanning the horizon for things that can bite us. We look for early warning signs and risk triggers and pride ourselves at being almost prescient in our ability to call something before it happens. All this is well and good, but what if we’re wrong? What if we’ve leapt to the wrong conclusion and have decided to solve the wrong problem?

Senge explains it by saying that as we climb further up Argyris’ ladder of abstraction, our flawed mental models can cause us to misread the true cause of an event, which, in turn, leads us to take any number of inappropriate actions. To make matters worse, this entire process often becomes a loop. We carry over our generalized beliefs and assumptions from our current situation to the next situation we encounter and then judge that situation based on our preconceptions. The examples of “we see what we expect to see” are myriad, and they all serve to drive home exactly how frequently we all make faulty leaps of abstraction.

Knowing this, the next question is: What can we do about it? From the perspective of the nimble project manager, the first technique is to make sure that everyone on the project team always focuses first on solving the problem at hand. Resolving the immediate problem without ignoring the broader ramifications is one of the skills that a good understanding of mental models offers. Another technique that works well in meetings is to establish a trigger phrase with the team. Using a statement such as “that’s an insightful possibility” can be a gentle reminder to anyone to return their focus to the facts and not the conclusions.

Exposing the left-hand column
Much of Senge’s work with mental models is an extension of earlier work done by Dr. Chris Argyris. Argyris developed the left-hand column technique as a way to get people to understand exactly what assumptions and opinions are actually being communicated beneath the words. As Argyris initially constructed the exercise, individuals would write out a conversation they’d participated in, listing the spoken dialogue on the right-hand side and their own internal dialogue (what they were really thinking) on the left-hand side. The goal of the exercise was to help them become more conscious about the dichotomy between their words and their thoughts.

Professor Sue Faerman at the University at Albany extended this technique in 1996 by adding another column (Table A), which I think adds some significant depth. This column records what you believe the other person meant by what he or she said, making it possible to expose both the surface and the unconscious frames of reference.
Left-hand column #1
(What I think she/he was thinking.)

Left-hand column #2
(What I was thinking.)

Right-hand column
(What was said.)


Senge says that with practice, we can reach the point in our personal discipline where we can mentally fill out the left-hand columns in real time, which should provide a significant aid to communication. Take the example of a cross-functional project where two of the major stakeholders are in a turf war. Stakeholder B requests that the project include certain things in the scope, and Stakeholder A says that they’re not necessary. As PM, you meet with both parties individually to try to determine the real reasons behind their requests. You find that they both offer reasoned arguments as to why their viewpoints are right, but you locate the difficulty in the subtext. Stakeholder B is predicating his functionality requests on the fact that he’s hoping that Stakeholder A will soon be forced out of the company. Stakeholder A doesn’t see this coming and is sincerely trying to get the project done. Your own subtext is constantly chattering that you don’t like Stakeholder B, whereas you like and trust Stakeholder A. Since you report to Stakeholder A and you respect him, acceding to any of Stakeholder B’s requests might rapidly feel like disloyalty. Table B shows how a typical dialogue using this example could be written.
Left-hand column #1
(What I think she/he was thinking.)

Left-hand column #2
(What I was thinking.)

Right-hand column
(What was said.)

"When I'm in charge, I want it done right, and they're skipping important things."
That request isn't in scope, and it's just designed to make their job easier.
Stakeholder B asks for additional support.
  I don't want to help because it's disloyal to Stakeholder B.
I turn down the request politely as being out of scope.
"I don't want a project manager who's not bright enough to understand the political lay of the land. Her loyalty is stupid and misplaced."
I know I'm being threatened/warned about drawing battle lines that could impact my project.
Stakeholder B hints at potential changes on the horizon.
 
If he really thinks he's going to be in charge, then HE needs to see the project in on time as much as Stakeholder A.
I explain it's out of scope and that it will delay the project, which will upset the CEO.
"She's right—being late would be bad."
I got lucky.
Stakeholder B agrees.

Before we leave the topic of understanding the hidden subtext of our thinking and the thinking of others, it’s important to point out that this technique isn’t intended to be empathetic. Human beings are complex, and we have no trouble at all holding conflicting opinions, values, and reasons. By introducing too much empathy into this process, it is possible to become lost in the noise of cognitive dissonance and lose your effectiveness in dealing with the situation. The intent of the left-hand column is to understand the surface motive behind what we say and what we hear others say, not to open a psychological can of worms.

Balancing inquiry and advocacy
The next technique is intended to help us clarify our mental models and facilitate others in sharing their models in the give and take of a real-time discussion. According to Senge, most discussions quickly become a spiral of increasing advocacy with both sides polarized into their own positions. We get caught in the trap of listening to others only to dismiss their arguments and to reinforce our own point of view. Similarly, when we’re in pure inquiry mode, we replace dialogue with questions and fail to share our own perspectives. In this case, our silence, rather than our arguments, negates any learning on either side. By balancing inquiry and advocacy, we create a situation where we can flex our own thinking enough to see where another perspective changes, enhances, or reverses our own models.

In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Rick Ross and Charlotte Roberts offer some specific advice for improving our skills of inquiry and advocacy. They recommend the following.

To improve inquiry skills:
  • Use the skills of active listening.
  • Ask others to share the reasoning behind their conclusions.
  • Use nonaggressive language to ask your questions.

To improve advocacy skills:
  • Make your thinking process visible to others by articulating how you’ve “walked up the ladder of abstraction.”
  • Encourage others to explore your model, your assumptions, and your data.
  • Freely acknowledge where you think there might be gaps in your reasoning. This will invite others to participate by helping you resolve these gaps and makes your position appear more open.

This technique might strike some project managers as a way to get caught in an infinite loop of talking something to death. My personal experience has been just the opposite. A couple of years ago, I found myself doing a peer review on a project where decisions had a nasty habit of getting unmade. To fix this, the project team and I developed a concept we called the daily decision log. All team members agreed to practice the technique of balancing inquiry with advocacy in their meetings to ensure that no one’s viewpoint dominated. They agreed to write up an action plan after the meeting and post it to the Web site as a record of the decisions they’d made. All team members also agreed that a posted decision could be questioned in the first 24 hours (on the off chance they’d missed some important input), but after that the matter was closed.

Espoused models and models-in-use
What we say we believe in and what we really believe, based on our actions, are two different things, according to Senge. This obviously isn’t a new concept. Folk wisdom has always told us to judge others based on their actions rather than on their words. The particular strength of this concept for the nimble project manager is that it offers a path of positive change and, done correctly, it can create a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The process is rather simple. It involves asking yourself three questions:
  • What do I believe?
  • How should I behave if I believe this?
  • If my behavior differs from this, what attitude do I need to change?

The first question addresses the need to make our mental models conscious. How do we choose to manage our projects? How should we communicate with our team? How closely do we monitor activities and how much do we trust our teams to deliver the right product? The project management skills that most people concentrate on can’t answer these questions and yet, in some ways, our worldview might be more important to the success of our project than a 30-page risk plan or a nice PERT diagram.

The second question turns our focus to what we can learn from the general management community and from our role models and mentors. For every project manager, the exact choice of desired behavior will be different based on personality types and the results of their individual SWOT assessments. But at root, nimble project managers must align their behavior with the vision of creating an environment where the project team members are free to work at their highest potential.

The third question circles back to the discipline of personal mastery and asks, “If I know what I believe, and I know that how I act should be in alignment with my belief, is there anything I should do or say that is different from my current approach?” It’s important to remember that no human being will ever have completely reconciled mental models. We all have our dark corners and our blind spots, and it’s nothing but hubris to assume that we’ll completely eliminate them. On the other hand, we can’t lose by attempting to practice what we preach.

Conscious, explainable models
We've seen how the second discipline, mental models, pertains to us as individuals, and we've reviewed Senge’s suggestions for making our mental models more conscious and more explainable to others. We've also discussed how mental models work in conjunction with the first discipline, personal mastery. In our next article, we’ll explore Senge’s fifth discipline, systems thinking, and see how it serves as the center point for all five disciplines.

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