November 14, 2010

The Importance of Mental Models

Many years ago, my wife and I were in Paris, staying in a quaint Left Bank hotel that did not provide an iron and ironing board. My mental model of a hotel is that it should provide these, free of charge, and preferably one to each room: I like having wrinkle-free clothes, even on holiday. However, as we will see, I’ve learned that my mental models are not always adequate representations of reality, and that in order to solve my problems, I may have to construct a new mental model. We decided that the solution to our problem was to buy a compact travel iron to solve the problem once and for all.

To Find an Iron in Paris: How Hard Can It Be?

At home in Toronto, the obvious place to buy a small electrical appliance would be at a large department store, so we thought that the first place to look for our quarry would be at a well-known Parisian department store a healthy walk from our hotel. When we got there, we wandered around a bit, but couldn’t see an appliances department, so we asked a saleslady where we could find such a thing. (We are both fluent in French, so we had a leg up on most tourists in such a situation.)

The saleslady was polite and helpful, but bewildered that we would be looking for an iron in her store: in her mind this clearly wasn’t the kind of place you shopped for such things. It was as if I had gone into a sporting goods store and asked if they had a fresh produce section.

Another faulty mental model: in spite of being two adults with years of experience fending for ourselves, able to speak the local language, familiar with Paris from previous trips, it dawns on us that we are simply lacking the competence to perform the simple task of buying a travel iron in Paris.

What the Heck Is “Darty”?

Luckily, when we asked our friendly saleslady where we might purchase an iron nearby, she offered one word: “Darty.” We weren’t sure if this was the name of a street, a neighbourhood, a local shop-keeper or a store, but she pointed us vaguely up the street, and off we went. Along the way, we found a small shop whose sign indicated that they sold electrical supplies, and we thought this might be what we were looking for, but in fact this store only sold light bulbs of every shape and variety, all stored in rows of wooden drawers mounted like a library’s old card-catalog on the walls. My mental model of the world did not contain the possibility of such a store, so I was mystified and delighted: if I ever need a light bulb in Paris, I will now know where to go.

After wandering around in circles through the figure eight streets, repeatedly asking reservedly helpful passersby for directions, and being vaguely pointed, sometimes in contradictory directions, we finally found a fairly large store, set back from the street with a sign proclaiming it to be “Darty”. At last!

Making a Purchase: What Could Be Easier?

Once we entered the store, it was clear we had found the right place. There were rows and rows of various kinds of home appliances and electrical gadgets. Not all of the logical groupings were readily apparent to me: for example there might be electric fans and electric razors in the same shelving island. Each item had a single display model, out of box, on a shelf with a small card with a number next to it. After some wandering around, we did find a small row of irons, one of which was a compact travel iron.

Now for our next challenge: how to buy one? There were no boxed models to pick up and take to the sales counter, just the floor model and the little number. We stood their looking and feeling clueless for a while, until a saleslady spotted us and asked if we needed help. Saved! Now, we thought, she will get us our item, process our transaction and our quest will be over.

We indicated to her the travel iron we had selected. She took out a little paper form, filled out the number of our item on it, handed it to us, and cheerfully bid us good day. Another perfectly good mental model crushed by a cruel Gallic world! I sheepishly asked where I was supposed to take the form. She pointed vaguely across the store, saying there was a counter.

Sure enough, we crossed the store and found a counter with several clerks standing around. We handed one of them our form, they processed our payment, gave us a new stamped form, and bid us a somewhat perfunctory good day. I waited for a moment, expecting our iron to appear, in spite of the fact that our clerk seemed to have completely lost interest in us. After a few moments, I asked where my iron was. They pointed vaguely in a new direction across the store, and we traipsed off, ending up among rows of televisions sets.

The sales guy there took pity on us, despite my mild irritation that I had already paid for my iron, but did not yet have it in my hand (another mental model). He explained that we actually had to leave the store, and walk half-way down the hall of the indoor mall it was in and we would be able to get our iron there. I’m starting to feel like a sucker: they’ve taken my money, but they are now telling me to leave the store with just a little stamped form and someone down the way will give me my item? Riiiight! Nonetheless, we followed his instructions, finding a little kiosk down the way, unmarked and unattended. After a few moments standing there, dejected and simmering, an attendant appeared, took our stamped form, and handed us our boxed travel iron. At last!

The Joys of Travelling

Now you could take this story as a mockery of the French way of doing things, but the American tourists I’ve seen loudly berating French workers for their bad customer service have got that angle covered.
In fact, I love these kinds of experiences, though they can be distressing at the time, and they are exactly part of the reason I travel. I want to have my mental models challenged by a different culture.

There is a perfectly good system at work there that Parisians navigate every day, I just didn’t understand it, but now I do, and having done so, I’m now just a little bit more competent at how to get needful things done in Paris.

Working with Systems Is Working with Mental Models

Though you could just read this as an amusing anecdote about travel, my real purpose in telling it is to apply it to thinking about useful systems. Doing software development, or managing a team, or running a business are all about navigating, manipulating and improving systems. To work with a system effectively, you need to have a good mental model of that system.

If you want to lead a team, one of your biggest challenges is to communicate your mental model of the undertaking you want the team to pursue. Only if all the members of the team share a mental model which is adequate to the task at hand can they work together to produced the desired end.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that to call yourself competent at some skill is to say that you have acquired an adequate mental model of that skill.

Humility Is the Path to Competence

As the iron-buying story illustrates, it can be frustrating and humiliating to be confronted by a foreign mental model. We are comfortable considering ourselves to be competent adults, knowing how to do things in the world, and being confronted with our own incompetence in the face of an unknown mental model can be painful.

This often leads us to disparage the people that have that mental model. For example, I’ve seen tech teams and sales teams run each other down behind their backs, each side thinking that what they do is complex and valuable, and what the other does is simple or over-valued. The fact is that each has invested a lot into understanding a complex mental model that underlies their respective competence, and it is easier to run down the other’s mental model than to accept their own lack of competence in the other’s domain.

My experience is that if I’m not getting the results I want, or if I’m having trouble communicating with someone else, the challenge is to discover the right mental model to make me competent at that task. The necessary ingredient, sometimes hard to practice, is the humility to abandon the comfortable mental model I’ve already mastered to be able to absorb the new mental model at which I am just a clueless newbie. Only by accepting my incompetence can I find the road to competence.

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