During the painful layoffs and restructuring at Citicorp in the early 1990s, we witnessed the following uncomfortable scene: A talented computer programmer in his forties, facing the loss of his position, was shocked to find that he was no longer needed because his skills in COBOL programming were obsolete. This bolt came totally out of the blue, because he was a good programmer. He just hadn’t kept up. Not only this, but as he worked through outplacement, he discovered to his horror that his skills were no longer valuable to anyone. He had been cruising along in his career, unaware of the changes around him, and now he found that the road he was traveling led right off a cliff.
Could this programmer have been better prepared if he hadn’t been locked in an outdated mindset? Even if he couldn’t have prevented his dismissal, could he at least have been better able to move forward afterward?
If the world remained static, we might be able to remain blissfully unaware of our models. Like our primitive hunter-gatherer ancestors, our basic instinct and experience would serve us well from childhood throughout our relatively short lives. But today the world changes ever more rapidly, and we need to be able to recognize our own models, to know whether and how to change them, to act quickly, and to influence the models of others.
Like the programmer in the example above, we often don’t see the need to change until we experience the pink slip, the divorce, the lawsuit or the heart attack. Then, if it is not too late, we wake up to see that our old mental models no longer work. (Surprisingly, even these shocks sometimes are not enough.)
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can consciously change your mental models before the world forces you to do so. Some of the people at Citicorp, including many who ultimately survived the job cuts, made a conscious effort to immerse themselves in the outside world. They explored different aspects of technology, such as new programming languages and techniques, and brought these new perspectives to their work. They actively challenged their own mental models and those around them. They continued to develop new and useful mindsets that were valuable to the organization. They became leaders of the transformations that were needed to turn the company around.
At any given point, we have a choice in how we view the world. But we are not always aware of these choices. The models we have developed through our education and experience are often invisible to us until it is too late.
In a changing environment, we can either transform ourselves or be transformed. Every day individuals in their work and personal lives prove that it is possible to change before life itself gives them a painful wakeup call. But to transform our lives, we have to first transform our minds. Our mental models determine what we are able to see and do.