Intention and shared mental model space

Hamilton Helmer pointed out this amazing connection between intention and shared mental model space that I haven’t seen before. If we are looking to gain more coherence within an organization, simply expanding the shared mental model does not seem sufficient. Yes, expanding this space creates more opportunities for coherence. But what role does the space play in realizing these opportunities?

A metaphor that helped me: imagine the shared mental model space as a landscape. There are tall mountains, and deep chasms, as well as areas that make for a nice, pleasant hike. Those who are walking within this landscape will naturally form paths through those friendly areas.  When a shared mental model space is tiny, everyone is basically seeing a different landscape. Everyone is walking their own hiking trails, and none of them match. Superimposed into one picture, it looks like Brownian motion. When the shared mental model space is large, the landscape is roughly the same, and so is the trail, growing into a full-blown road that everyone travels.

On this road, where is everybody going? Where is the road leading them? Shared mental models aren’t just a way for us to communicate effectively. They also shape the outcomes of organizations. The slope of the road is slanted toward something. The common metaphors, terms, turns of the phrase, causal chains and shorthands — they are the forms that mold our organization’s norms and culture.

If my team’s shared mental model space is dominated by war metaphors and ironclad logic of ruthless expansion, the team will see every challenge — external or internal — as a cutthroat battle. If my organization’s key metaphors are built around evaluating the impact of individual contributions, we might have trouble cohering toward a common goal.

Put differently, every team and organization has an intention. This intention is encoded in its shared mental model space.  The slant of that road gently, but implacably pulls everyone toward similar conclusions and actions. This encoded intention may or may not be aligned with the intention of organization’s leaders. When it is, everything feels right and breezy. Things just happen. When it is not, there is a constant headwind felt by everyone. Everything is slow and frustrating. Despite our temptation to persevere, I wonder if we would be better off becoming aware of our shared mental model space, discerning the intention encoded in it, and patiently gardening the space to slant toward the intention we have in mind?

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