Rigor and shared mental model space

Alex Komoroske has another great set of new cards on rigor and here’s a little riff on them. The thing that caught my attention — and resonated with me —  was the notion of faux rigor. Where does it come from?

Alex’s excellent iron triangle of the argument trade-offs framing offers a hint. Time is the ever-present constraint, and that means that the Short corner tends to prevail. Given a 1-pager and a 30-pager, the choice is a no-brainer for a busy leader. So the battle for rigor now depends on the argument being self-evident. Here, I want to build the story around the concept of shared mental model space. A shared mental model space is the intersection of all mental models across all members of a team.

In a small, well-knit team that’s worked together for a long time, the shared mental model space is quite large. People speak in shorthand, and getting your teammate up to speed on a new idea is quite easy: they already reached most of the stepping stones that got you there. In this environment, we can still find rigorous arguments, because the Self-evident corner is satisfied by the expansive shared mental model space. 

As the team grows larger or churns in membership, the shared mental model space shrinks. Shorthands start needing expansion, semantics — definition, and arguments — longer and longer builds. With a smaller shared mental model space, the argument needs to be more self-contained. Eventually, rigor is sacrificed to the lowest common denominator of mental models. In a limited shared mental model space, only the most basic short and self-evident arguments can be made. Value good. Enemy bad.

This spells trouble for larger teams or teams with high turnover. Through this lens, it’s easy to see how they would struggle to maintain a high level of rigor in the arguments that are being presented and evaluated within it. And as the level of rigor declines, so will the organization’s capacity to make sound strategic decisions. After faux rigor becomes the norm, this norm itself becomes a barrier that traps the organization in existential strategic myopia.

Especially in situations when a small organization begins to grow, it might be a good investment to consider how it will maintain a large shared mental model space as new people arrive and old guard retires. Otherwise, its growth will correlate with the decline of argument rigor within its ranks.  

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