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Chapter 1 | Thinking for a Digital Era Guidebook

Unlearning Mental Models

In this time of transformation, some of our most cherished assumptions and beliefs become inaccurate.

To embrace the new model of value creation, you first need to unlearn obsolete ways of thinking and update your mental models for success in a digital world.

Why unlearning?

We think about learning as adding to what we already know. But sometimes what we already know gets in the way of learning something new.

When ways of thinking that used to be effective don’t work as well anymore, we need to find new ones. This often requires as much unlearning as learning.

Trying to learn new information without changing the underlying thinking is like trying to paint over peeling paint. You have to strip off the old paint first, otherwise the new paint won’t stick.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
— attributed to Mark Twain

To transform what we do, first we must transform how we think

Our bias towards action can be counter-productive if we are operating inside an outdated way of thinking.

In a recently-published study in Nature, researchers found that humans almost always added components to solve problems instead of subtracting them. This might explain why humans often tend to add more activity to solve problems rather than subtract ineffective actions or ways of thinking.

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Take, for example, the way we teach people to ride bikes. If you didn't learn to ride a bike in the last few years, you probably had a lot of crashes and/or used 'training wheels' stuck to the side of a bicycle to prevent you from toppling over while you pedaled before you knew how to balance. Only in the last few years did pedal-less training bicycles become more common. New riders start with a 'balance bike' before adding pedaling motions; many parents are big advocates of this method.

The researchers noted that if participants were 'multi-tasking,' they were less likely to think of subtracting elements to solve problems. This is why it's important to pause and check our thinking early and often when dealing with complex challenges.

Sometimes the best way to navigate change is to pause and ask "are we thinking about this right?" before asking "what do we do next?"

Example

The Big Dig

When the landscape changes, we need new maps.

This was the situation 15 years ago in Boston thanks to a project called the Big Dig. All the highways were moved from above-ground to below the city.

The navigation devices at the time were of little use because their internal maps became obsolete.

This is the situation we find ourselves in today: the landscape of business has changed, but we haven't yet updated our mental maps for how to succeed.

How to Navigate a Changing Landscape

What if you have to take a detour? We used to be able to navigate based on maps from people who had charted the landscape before we arrived. This works as long as the landscape is not changing. Early satellite navigation devices were still essentially paper maps. Occasionally, you might manually update them by downloading a new set of digitized maps. If the landscape is changing constantly, though, it's not enough to update our maps once a decade or even every couple of years. We need a mapping system that updates constantly and even predicts the future, like Google Maps or Waze do. Instead of going to school once at the beginning of our career, we need to have a practice of unlearning all the time.

Example

Mental models

Mental models are often deeply ingrained in our mental and physical habits.

Mental models are our cognitive assumptions about how the world works. They represent our beliefs about how things are related and what actions cause which results.

Mental models can be hard to identify and shift because they are usually unconscious and deeply embedded in how we are used to doing things.

Consider the tourists who visit London from countries that drive on the right side of the road.

It's easy to learn that you need to look right at a crosswalk. What's harder is unlearning the habit of looking left.

What is a Mental Model?

Mental models are how the brain makes sense of the vast amount of data and processes it into information.

They are the...

  • Lenses through which we see the world
  • Filters that separate the signal from noise
  • Frameworks for attributing cause and effect
  • “Sorting hats” to decide what makes it into our conscious awareness.

Example

The Sorting Hat

If you or someone you know is into the Harry Potter series of novels, you might remember the sorting hat from when Harry Potter first arrives at the magical Hogwarts school. The Sorting Hat, when placed on top of a student, helped determine which house or 'group' they go into—but how it comes to that conclusion isn't visible to anyone. That's like our unconscious, which makes hidden decisions about what makes it into our conscious awareness.

Example

The backwards bicycle

Unlearning deeply embedded mental models is tough—but it can be done.

Check out this video for a great example of how deeply ingrained mental models can be.

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You’re not going to get exponential results with a “bike” (mental model) that’s a little better and a little faster. You're going to have to learn how to ride a backwards bicycle.

The good news is that it can be done, and it doesn't necessarily take eight months.

It takes rewiring your automatic responses, which means going through the awkward and frustrating phase where you don’t feel like you're good at what you’re doing.

In this stage, even 'knowing' what you need to do differently is not enough. As the narrator says, knowledge is not equal to understanding.

The unlearning trapeze

Think of unlearning as making the leap from one trapeze bar to another.

It's often said that people resist change. But resistance is often quite rational—and not as hard to overcome as we think.

Imagine that you are hanging from a trapeze bar. Everything is going fine, until the rope above you starts to fray. You look down, but there’s no net.

People yell at you to let go and stop resisting the change. But what's the alternative? The rational thing to do is hang on as long as you can until another bar comes within reach.

In this analogy, the first bar is the existing mental model, the fraying rope represents the forces that are making it obsolete, and the new bar is the new mental model.

The process of unlearning is finding the new bar, getting it close enough to reach, making the jump from the old to the new, and then bringing others along with you.

Help people make the leap

First we need to shift our own thinking if we are going to ask others to make the jump. Then we need to understand the steps required to help others shift their thinking.

Step 1

Recognize when the rope is fraying. Recognize when mental models are growing outdated.

Step 2

Distinguish the old and new bars. Understand differences between old and new models.

Step 3

Bring the new bar within reach. It’s not enough to show that the new bar is better. People need to see that they can make the leap.

Help people make the leap

First we need to shift our own thinking if we are going to ask others to make the jump. Then we need to understand the steps required to help others shift their thinking.

Step 1

Recognize when the rope is fraying. Recognize when mental models are growing outdated.

Step 2

Distinguish the old and new bars. Understand differences between old and new models.

Step 3

Bring the new bar within reach. It’s not enough to show that the new bar is better. People need to see that they can make the leap.

We have to shift our own thinking if we are going to ask others to make the jump too.

It can be unsettling to let go of a current way of thinking. We might have invested a lot of our time, resources and social capital into successful mastery of a way of thinking and operating. We must go through our own transformation, though, if we are going to ask other to make the same leap.

We have to shift our own thinking if we are going to ask others to make the jump too.

It can be unsettling to let go of a current way of thinking. We might have invested a lot of our time, resources and social capital into successful mastery of a way of thinking and operating. We must go through our own transformation, though, if we are going to ask other to make the same leap.

1. Recognize when the rope is fraying

Know when mental models are growing outdated.

Are there actions that once produced reliable results but are now inconsistent or less effective? Are you not sure what to do, but you don’t feel that more data or information would add clarity?

These can be signs that the real problem lies with an outdated mental model.

Example

Video rental stores' 'fraying rope'

If you were in the video rental store business in the 2000s and 2010s, you might have found business declining without an obvious reason. Yet increased spending on marketing efforts had limited if any benefit. Asking the question, "what are the trends in video rental store marketing" similarly might not have revealed the answer, either. We all know the conclusion to this story: Netflix and other streaming services. As Netflix and other novel DVD rental services emerged, it might have been easy to discount them—"no one really wants to rent DVDs by mail or from a kiosk—it's a niche idea." And then, again, when streaming happened, "people don't want to watch movies on the computer and their internet connection isn't good enough anyway." By the time most video rental services realized what the mental model they were operating from was fundamentally obsolete, it was too late.

Exercise

Need for new mental models

Think about your current landscape. Look for areas where old mental models are no longer viable.

Questions:

  • What’s a familiar business habit or practice that no longer seems to be working?
  • How is the landscape changing in your industry? Where are areas where you need new mental models?

Competing Objectives

Another indicator is when you feel caught between two competing objectives. They seem mutually exclusive, but you really want to have both. For example, companies today want to be global and local, have scale and intimacy, achieve profit and purpose.

Transcending tradeoffs like these takes a new kind of mindset.

Example

Amazon: Global and Local

Amazon is able to be global through its massive infrastructure and distribution network. It's also able to be local through its marketplace of small sellers. The exponential technologies of its rich data layer enable the 'global' scale also enables the seemingly opposite 'local' scale.

Example

Facebook: Scale and Intimacy

Facebook is able to offer a network of massive scale, with billions of users from around the globe. It's also able to provide unprecedented intimacy of recommendations (content, people connections, etc) akin to that of a close friend or advisor, and customer (advertising) segmentation almost akin to the personal relationships of a small-town shopkeeper. The exponential technologies of its 'social graph' which analyzes unheard-of facets of each user enable the seemingly opposite objectives of scale and intimacy.

Example

Patagonia: Profit and Purpose

Patagonia's founders and employees are driven primarily to save the planet—a rallying purpose that shows up in and around every part of the business. By 2019, the company had donated over $116 million to planet-improving projects. Yet the company is also able to generate substantial profits as a global brand and command a pricing premium. Through a number of 'unlearnings' about corporate governance, brand, and quality—even to the point of encouraging customers not to buy new products—Patagonia has earned customer loyalty that supports a substantial price premium over competitive products which easily covers the cost of Patagonia's social impact efforts.

Reflection

What is the 'fraying rope' in your work?

In the metaphor of change as a trapeze, sometimes there isn't an apparent reason for us to make the leap from our current thinking ('the current bar we're hanging from') to new thinking (the 'new bar'). It can be helpful to discover if there is out-of-date thinking (a 'fraying rope' that will only support us for so long).

  • What’s a familiar business habit or practice that no longer seems to be working?
  • Are there actions that once produced reliable results but are now inconsistent or less effective?
  • Are you not sure what to do, but you don’t feel that more data or information would add clarity?

2. Distinguish the old and new bars

Help clarify the differences.

The tricky thing about mental models is that they are deeply embedded and largely unconscious.

Mental models are the lens through which we see the world. And like glasses, once we get used to them, we don’t notice they are there.

Language reveals our mental models. How we think is reflected in what we say.

For example, consider the following two statements: “We are moving our data to the cloud” vs. “We are moving our company to the cloud.”

These are not just semantic differences. They reflect very different mental models of cloud as an IT strategy or a business strategy.

The process of unlearning seems more difficult when we don’t have a good mental model to replace the old one.

The “new bar” has to be both about technology and thinking.

2. Distinguish the old and new bars

Help clarify the differences.

The tricky thing about mental models is that they are deeply embedded and largely unconscious.

Mental models are the lens through which we see the world. And like glasses, once we get used to them, we don’t notice they are there.

Language reveals our mental models. How we think is reflected in what we say.

The process of unlearning seems more difficult when we don’t have a good mental model to replace the old one.

The “new bar” has to be both about technology and thinking.

Example

From Data in the Cloud to Company in the Cloud

You’ve probably seen this for yourself. Compare the  statements “We are moving our data to the cloud” vs. “We are moving our company to the cloud.”

These are not just differences in wording. Each phrases reflects very different mental models of cloud as an IT strategy or a business strategy.

Thinking about cloud as data storage reveals thinking of data as something at rest that we move to a new location, like moving files from one hard drive to another, is an IT modernization strategy. Thinking of the cloud as a foundation for the entire company is far more exponential—it implies moving not just data, but operations, customer interactions, and collaboration.

Example

Artificial Intelligence: From Spreadsheet to Algorithm

Artificial Intelligence is another great example of an exponential technology that is only as useful as the thinking we bring to it. For example, underlying the exponential technology of AI is exponential thinking which need to be understood in order to take advantage of the technology (or protect against poor implementations of it). In order to utilize AI, we need to understand the concepts of prediction, algorithms, the (limits of) automation, data ethics, and data in motion. Otherwise, we'll probably not get very far with the technology. In summary, until we make an exponential shift in our mental model from spreadsheets to algorithms, AI tech will only give us an incrementally better spreadsheet.

3. Bring the new bar within reach

It’s not enough to show the new bar is better.

Moving to a new way of thinking has two risks. One risk is that people don’t see the new way as sufficiently different from the old, so they slip back into the default way of thinking. The other is that the new way is too different, leaving people no way to relate it to what they already know.

The solution is to use a familiar image to build a bridge between the old and the new.

A hand-drawn sketch of a 1919 Horseless Carriage, a powered buggy with a mounted horsehead.

Find a “horseless carriage”

To help people make the leap, describe the new in terms of the old.

When the automobile first came into existence, it was known as a horseless carriage, because it was like a horse-drawn carriage but without the horse. Only over time did it take on its own name.

We can see the same thing in phrases like “driverless cars,” “digital wallet,” and “internet of things.”

One part comes from the existing model and one part is from the new model. This helps people understand and become comfortable with the new mental model.

“Innovation is a mixture of the old and the new with a dash of surprise.”
— Al Etmanski

Example

Introduction of the iPhone

The 2007 announcement by Steve Jobs of the original iPhone is a great example of a horseless carriage.

He began by talking about how Apple was announcing three new products: a touch-screen music player, a mobile phone and an Internet communicator. Then he showed how this wasn’t three products but one.

By doing this, he ensured that people understood the iPhone wasn’t just a phone but had all three of these capabilities.

Exercise

Mindshifts

Use the following to help people make the shift to a new mindset.

1. Pick an audience

Who are you helping to make a shift in mental model? You’ll want to complete these steps for each audience.

2. Identify the domain you’re innovating in

For example, transportation is the domain for horseless carriages.

3. Replace the words in the [brackets] with your terms

Today, they think about [domain] as [existing mindset].

Example: Today, they think about transportation as horses.

4. Find the words to reframe that mindset

In the future, they could think about [domain] as [new mindset].

Example: In the future, they could think about transportation as automobiles.

Exercise

Horseless Carriage

Use the following worksheet to complete the mindshift by helping people think of the new in terms they’re familiar with.

Restate your new concept in terms of the old one. Replace the words in the [brackets] with your terms.

A way to think about the future of [domain] through the lens of the past is as [new mindset].

Example: A way to think about the future of transportation through the lens of the past is as a horseless carriage.

Reflection

How is the landscape changing in your industry? Where are areas where you need new mental models?

Examples of "Horseless Carriages"

Digital wallets

Machine learning

Driverless cars

3D printing

Bitcoin

Ambidexterity: Being Able to Switch Back and Forth

Unlearning as a capability is not just about replacing obsolete mental models, but also switching between several viable models. For example, there are many places where 'incremental thinking' is useful such as process improvement, optimization, safety, and cost reduction. There are other contexts where exponential thinking is desirable—when we're creating new value, solving seemingly intractable problems, or launching new communities and markets. You can think of the ability to switch between two or more useful models as ambidexterity. Just like it's helpful (and rare) to be able to use both our right hand and our left hand equally well, people and organizations who can operate in many different mental models are resilient and valuable.

Recap

In this time of transformation, some of our most cherished assumptions and beliefs become inaccurate.

  • Mental models are often deeply ingrained in our mental and physical habits.
  • Think of unlearning like making the leap from an untenable trapeze bar to a new, better one.
  • Three steps to help others shift their thinking:
  1. Recognize when the rope is fraying. Know when mental models are growing outdated.
  2. Distinguish the old and new bars. Help clarify the differences.
  3. Bring the new bar within reach. Find a horseless carriage to present the new in terms of the old.

How to Navigate a Changing Landscape

What if you have to take a detour? We used to be able to navigate based on maps from people who had charted the landscape before we arrived. This works as long as the landscape is not changing. Early satellite navigation devices were still essentially paper maps. Occasionally, you might manually update them by downloading a new set of digitized maps. If the landscape is changing constantly, though, it's not enough to update our maps once a decade or even every couple of years. We need a mapping system that updates constantly and even predicts the future, like Google Maps or Waze do. Instead of going to school once at the beginning of our career, we need to have a practice of unlearning all the time.