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Mental Model Machinations

Over the past two weeks, two ideas have been bouncing around in my brain. They have now smashed into each other, producing a couple of emails.

Today’s email is about the first idea, which is from fourth-wave systems thinking. It’s the idea of “mental models,” which we all use, all the time.

Here’s the idea: We see reality indirectly through our mental models.

Trippy, right?

Imagine yourself wearing goggles labeled “mental models” and viewing everything through them.

For example, right now, I’m sitting on a system of cloth, steel, pulls, gears, and hydraulics. My mental model says I’m “sitting on a chair,” and I don’t think twice about it.

I’m also using my fingers to rapidly depress a sequence of illuminated black plastic squares mounted to a rectangle. My mental model says I’m “typing” on a “keyboard.”

We all have mental models and begin forming them as soon as we come into the world.

For example, my 1yr old grandson doesn’t “type” yet, but he does bang his hands on the keyboard, possibly copying me.

I don’t know what his mental model about keyboards is yet, but someday we’ll share the same one.

”These go to eleven.”

Due to its abstract nature, software development turns mental models up to 11.

Not only do we have our mental models about physical reality (computers, monitors, networks, etc.), we have mental models around software (applications, websites, databases, web servers, etc.)

Add to this all mental models about building software (code in files, architectures, patterns, frameworks) and processes (agile, kanban, quality, testing, deployment, branching, etc.), and it’s easy to get confused.

If mental models are the lenses we use to understand the world, why don’t we talk about them more?

What do you discuss?

I notice that people often share information created with mental models, but they rarely share the mental model they’re using.

Sharing information is good, but that’s often like sharing a brute fact, such as “42.”

The mental model is the “engine” which produces information, such as “add the numbers 20 and 22 together.”

As you might notice, there are other mental models which would produce “42.”

It’s no surprise that when people argue about a technical topic, they don’t share the same mental models.

Do you see your teams discussing their mental models?

If not, how could you help?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so write me back.

Tomorrow: Näive Realism



About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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