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The Power of Impossible Thinking: Our Models Define Our World

In order to see the world clearly, we need to understand our mental models, the constructs that we create to make sense of the world around us. This chapter will help you discover how you're limiting what you see by relying on models to fill in what you don't see.
This chapter is from the book

In the old world, managers make products. In the new world, managers make sense of things.

—John Seely Brown1

It's midnight, and you hear a loud radio in the apartment downstairs.

Last week the quiet old man who lived there passed away, and you've been concerned about the arrival of the next tenant. You never know who might move in, and you've heard some real horror stories from your college friends. In an apartment house, the wrong neighbors can make your life miserable.

Now your worst fears have come true. The rock music plays on and on. You toss and turn, looking at the clock. At 12:30 a.m., you decide to wait just a little longer. Even if your new neighbor is a jerk, you are reluctant to turn your first meeting into a fight. At 1:00 a.m., the radio is blaring just as loud. What kind of party are they throwing down there? You've got to get up for work tomorrow. How can a person be so ignorant? So you walk down to lecture this idiot on common courtesy. You knock heavily on the door, and it swings open.

You are surprised to find the apartment completely bare. There is no sign of your new neighbor. There isn't even a sign of furniture. So you walk in. In the back room you find some drop cloths and paint cans. Plugged into one wall, you see a boom box cranked up full.

There is no neighbor, just a careless painter who left the radio on when he left for the day. The new tenant hasn't even arrived yet. The ignorant neighbor that you invented based on the noise vanishes into air, but the anger and other emotions you felt are still very real. You have trouble settling down and going back to sleep because you are still angry at this neighbor, a neighbor who exists only in your mind. You created this evil figure to explain the loud music, and he took on a life of his own. If you hadn't gone down and knocked on the door, you might have lived with this illusion for days.

Your mental models shape the way you see the world. They help you to quickly make sense of the noises that filter in from outside, but they can also limit your ability to see the true picture. They are with you always and, like your neighbors, can be a great help or can keep you up at night without reason.

What are mental models, and how do they shape your understanding and define the world you live in?

Can the wrong mental model kill you? Over the past quarter century, more than 150 children have died in the United States after their parents chose not to provide medical treatment because of their religious beliefs.2 The parents belonged to one of some 20 religious groups whose teachings deny the use of traditional medical care, relying instead on faith healing. The results are often tragic.

In April 1986, two-year-old Robyn Twitchell died of a bowel obstruction in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents, Christian Scientists, took the boy to a church practitioner who prescribed only prayer. The child's condition worsened. He had difficulty eating and sleeping. He was shaking and vomiting. Five days after the onset of the illness, he became unresponsive. The parents and the practitioner continued to trust in prayer up to the time of his death. The parents were convicted in July 1990 of manslaughter.

Experts testified that the condition could have been treated with a simple operation to remove the twisting of the bowel, an operation that would have very likely saved the child's life. This procedure, based on a surgical model of treating disease, was not considered by the boy's parents because of the mental model they held about the causes and treatment of disease. In a certain sense, the boy's death was due to the way they made sense of the world.

This story is not presented to pass judgment on the parents for their tragic decision or criticize their religious beliefs. It does offer an example of a single decision that is viewed through divergent models—the parents' beliefs and the medical perspective that the courts used in ruling on the case. In the court's opinion, the outcome of following the parents' model was very likely much worse than the outcome that could have been achieved from following a medical model.

While their impact is rarely so sharply defined as in this case, our mental models can affect our lives, careers and relationships; the prosperity of our businesses; and the quality of life in our societies. Almost every aspect of our lives is shaped in some way by how we make sense of the world. Our thinking and our actions are affected by the mental models we hold. These models define our limits or open our opportunities. Despite their power and pervasiveness, these models are usually virtually invisible to us. We don't realize they are there at all.

We believe that what we see is reality rather than something we create inside our heads. The parents of Robyn Twitchell believed that prayer alone was going to cure him. For them, this was reality. The surgeons who could have treated the child saw the case through a completely different set of eyes, as did the criminal justice system. We might think of mental models as something abstract or academic—to be studied and explained like optical illusions—but in this case and many others these models clearly are anything but academic. They not only shape what we see and how we understand the world but also how we act in it. In a real sense, what we think is what we see, and what we see is what we think.

How do the models you use to understand your life keep you locked in certain patterns of thought or prevent you from seeing solutions that are right in front of you? What are the potentially negative effects of your current models? How could you change your models to improve the quality of your life?

Rethinking IBM’s Research Model

Models also limit or open new opportunities in business. In the early 1990s, the head of research at IBM, Jim McGroddy, came to visit one of the authors (Colin Crook), who was then chief technology officer at Citicorp. McGroddy faced a serious challenge. IBM was losing billions of dollars every year. How could the research program help turn this situation around?

Crook discussed the information-technology value chain that was guiding IT development at Citibank. This value chain had three basic levels: at the bottom were atoms and basic math; in the middle was technology, such as storage, displays and chips; and at the top were customer solutions. What was really important, he said, was the work on these customer solutions, and that was where Citicorp was differentiating itself from rivals.

McGroddy realized that this focus on customer solutions had been largely ignored by IBM Research. Most of the company’s attention was on basic research at the bottom level or on technology in the middle. The company had become insular and product-focused, losing touch with its customers. This realization led to a reorganization of IBM Research and the creation of a new strategic area focusing on services, applications and solutions. IBM’s successful turnaround was driven by research in that category, which increased from nearly zero in 1990 to more than 25 percent in 2001. This dovetailed nicely with the launch of new chairman Lou Gerstner’s global services initiative, which became the fastest growing area for IBM.3

IBM may not have recognized it, but its research had been driven by a technocentric mental model. When this model was recognized and challenged, new opportunities could be seen, the organization could be redesigned and the business could be transformed (a transformation that was, of course, much broader than R&D). What looked like an R&D problem could be rethought from the perspective of the market. What looked like a difficult technological problem could be reconsidered as a challenge of business design.

Compartmentalization of Business and Personal Life

We recently spoke with a successful manager who remarked that when she needs to hire a new employee, she inevitably turns to a headhunter. But in her personal life, she trusts to chance to find a life partner. It is a similar challenge of finding the right person with the right characteristics and chemistry, but she applies a completely different approach because she has a different mental model for her personal and business life. She would never think about going into a single’s bar and hoping to stumble across the perfect vice president of marketing, but she will in her personal life. Because of this artificial wall, she was much less creative in thinking about her personal life (and less successful in filling the position for a life partner) than in her business life where she routinely found great people to fill key positions.

One of the limiting frames we have is the separation of business and personal life, even as these two worlds are merging together. Look at how many TV entertainment programs have a work setting for portraying stories of personal lives. As the lines between business and personal lives blur, there are opportunities for shifting our thinking within business and personal life and across the two. We can borrow mental models from one area and apply them to the other to change the way we see both aspects of our lives.

Domestic Emerging Markets

To take another example, consider how most companies view inner-city markets. These markets tend to be areas with low incomes, high crime rates and other risks or costs—in short, they are seen as a marketer’s nightmare. Even as major companies are waking up to the potential of emerging markets around the world, inner-city markets are still largely neglected. Yet, as Michael Porter has pointed out, these markets have distinctive advantages and hidden opportunities if we look more closely.4 While income may be lower, population density is much higher so "spending power per acre" is comparable to more affluent parts of the city. These markets are in strategic locations and often present demographics segments that are crucial to future market growth.

If we were to reframe the inner city as "domestic emerging markets," what new possibilities would this open? What strategies that are being used to address emerging markets in China and India might be applied in the cities of the United States and other developed nations with good effect? This simple shift in the way we view these markets could open new possibilities for strategies and new potential for growth.

How do your models for your industry and business prevent you from recognizing opportunities and realizing the full value of your organization?

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