Posts Tagged ‘mental model’

Communication Intents behind Indigo Practices

August 17, 2009

The Indigo Quadrant is where —

This series of blogs is a contribution to the shaping of new “Indigo Practices” — the survival skills we inhabitants of Planet Earth need to learn if we are to “pull through” despite the global environmental, political and religious-civilizational crises we ourselves have unwittingly created.

The communication intents behind Indigo Learning Practices are simple but challenging: to be able to understand ourselves and each other so that we can learn and build together as a group, despite our cultural, political, religious and other differences.

Towards this end, we need new and different but more workable tools for —

Here is my first-pass mind map of skills and tools for Indigo Learning Practices. It is an evolving mind map: I change and improve it from feedback from colleagues like you and as my concurrent personal experiences guide me as the blog series gets written one post at a time.

Building together

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Listening Where Mental Models of People Conflict

August 3, 2009

Two people with conflicting or incompatible mental models will likely:

  • See different slices of the real world (read blog post “Q7- We Found the Enemy: Our Own Concepts!”);
  • May be looking at the same thing but will interpret what they see differently;
  • Use different language, or use the same words but with different meanings; and
  • Will not be aware of all the above and will not know why they are unable to communicate productively (unless they practice internal listening and the rest of the discipline of “Mental Models” in Learning Organizations).

If they harbour mental models of each other that the other does not agree with (“On Michael Jackson, or Our Mental Models of People We Know”) then listening stops and the erosion of goodwill starts; further communication is unworkable.

What are the options in such a case?

  1. Option 1: Stop communication. To preserve goodwill, an agreement to acknowledge the fact that they have basic differences and to respect each other’s mental models instead of –
  2. Option 2: Use force so that the mental model of the more powerful will prevail or
  3. Option 3: Agree to obey the authority and judgment of a third party or
  4. Option 4: Use universally-accepted protocols for validating, eliminating or selecting mental models.

Unfortunately, protocols for Option 4 are not yet fully developed. The scientific method is a rather well-developed and tested set of protocols for validating mental models, but applied only to empirical validation or only on “what is” and “what works” (in figure below, only right side of Ken Wilber’s quadrants). Knowledge management is engaged in seeking, innovating, developing and re-using “what works”. Sustainable development criteria falls on the lower right quadrant.

Parallel protocols for validation and selection of mental models for the left side of Ken Wilber’s quadrants (see figure below) are not yet fully developed. Protocols for application to validation of experiential data (upper left quadrant) are still being developed in the discipines of transpersonal and paranormal psychology and in phenomenological research. There is no consensus on how “individual benefit” (upper left quadrant) is to be defined and assessed. What does it consist of? Money? Social opportunities? Learning and realizing human potential? Security? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a step in clarifying this area. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the slew of accessory protocols on other aspects and varieties of human rights is a notable contribution on the lower left quadrant. Surprisingly, the Rotary Club’s “Four-Way Test” fits very well with Ken Wilber’s framework and provides commonly-understandable or laymen criteria for the four quadrants:

Rotary 4-way test

I have written about Ken Wilber’s framework and applied it in many ways in past blogs:


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How We Form Judgments of Other People: Female Circumcision, Lying, the Jury System and the Scientists’ “Sacred p<.05"

July 20, 2009

This afternoon I was watching a BBC news report about the new Egyptian law banning female circumcision — the traditional practice of cutting off the clitoris of young girls. A survey revealed that 70% of Egyptian women respondents say they were circumcized. Westerners judge such practices as barbaric. Interviewed by BBC, an Egyptian mother entertains an opposite judgment, namely, that uncircumcized females are unclean. “They must be cleansed. Who will marry them if they are not circumcised? It will bring shame to the family.”

Some of our judgments of people were clearly culturally-dictated. Others were the result of obscure personal decisions we made sometime in the past.

What is your answer to this question: “After how many times that you catch a person lying when you conclude that the person is a liar?”



I asked many of my friends this question. The answer ranges from once to thrice. It is rare that people wait for four or more occasions of lying before concluding that the person in question is a liar. We make a judgment on trustworthiness after we see a behavior pattern repeated only one to three times.

That is how quickly we make conclusions about a person’s untrustworthiness. We are quick to judge untrustworthiness. Trust, on the other hand, takes longer to build. This means that for most people, they do not like to bear the (material) risk or cost of trusting someone whose future action shows he is not trustworthy. To them this cost is more important than the (goodwill) cost from not trusting someone when in fact he is trustworthy. Material costs seem to be more important to most people than goodwill costs.

In the American jury system, if only one juror in twelve entertains reasonable doubt, a man cannot be condemned for a criminal offense. In Scotland, there are fifteen jurors (thanks to Michael Heaney for pointing this out). The reason is that Western legal systems consider the cost (to the individual accused) of condemning an innocent person to be more important than the cost (to the rest of society) of not punishing a guilty person. In the Western mindset, an individual’s rights are paramount.

In modern scientific practice, a conclusion is not accepted for publication if the probability that that conclusion is wrong is more than 5%. This is the “sacred p<.05" criteria among scientists. Scientists' criterion for acceptance is stricter than the jury system. To scientists, getting at the empirical truth is a more strict procedure than establishing criminal guilt in a Western jury system.

There is a big problem from this scientific practice.

If accepting vs. rejecting a scientific hypothesis entails very substantial economic and social consequences (e.g. global warming, cancer from cigarette smoking, etc.), insisting on the "sacred p<.05" criterion is foolish. The social costs of making wrong decisions on hypotheses about the sex life of fruit flies is miniscule compared to the social costs of making wrong decisions on hypotheses about the global climate or cancer from cigarette smoking.

What I am saying is that the p<.05 decision rule is incomplete. It must be weighed by the total planetary costs and benefits of making wrong decisions: the costs and benefits of accepting a hypothesis when in fact it is wrong and the costs and benefits of rejecting it when in fact it is correct.

But back to how people construct their mental models.

Our judgments and assumptions about other people, and the process by which we adopt them, are often unconscious and obscure. Here is a practical way to make them explicit for conscious re-evaluation. Only if these judgments and assumptions are made explicit can we revisit them and ask questions such as: How have they been (unconsciously) affecting my decisions on the person? Are these judgments/assumptions still valid? If not, how do I revise them?

Select a person with whom you have problematic communications or relationship. Let’s call him Reuben. Fill in the following incomplete questions:

Reuben should… (enumerate)
Reuben should not… (enumerate)

What I like about Reuben are… (enumerate)
What I don’t like about Reuben are… (enumerate)

Reuben has a bad habit of… (enumerate)
Reuben has a good habit of… (enumerate)

Just list whatever comes to your mind, without editing or censoring. The objective is to make these judgments and assumptions explicit so that the owner of these judgments and assumptions can objectify and examine them, and see whether they are still valid and scrutinize whether they are based on deeper assumptions that can be further re-examined.

Not doing the above could mean that our communication with the person will continue to be problematic. Since we cannot identify possible root-causes within ourselves, then we continue to be the victims of our own assumptions and we cannot resolve the problematic communication.

These are tools in personal knowledge management and organizational learning. Ability to manage one’s mental models is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization, according to guru Peter Senge.

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L21- On Michael Jackson, or Our Mental Models of People We Know

July 18, 2009

Through our experiences with friends and colleagues, we form a mental model of each person we know.

1. The “Business Card” Stage

When you meet a person for the first time, you tell each other basic facts about yourselves. You exchange business cards (or calling cards or name cards). You get to know superficial information about each other:

  • Name
  • Organizational affiliation
  • Position in the organization
  • Academic “pedigrees”
  • Telephone numbers: direct landline, cellphone, fax line
  • Geographical addresses: work and residence
  • Email address
  • Website of the organization

When you accept each other as a friend or a link in a virtual social network such as Facebook or LinkedIn, the same thing happens when you access each other’s profile page, except that you get usually more information about each other through this medium. Members of social networks can also update, add/modify, decide who gets to see how much about himself and engage in a large variety of voluntary interactions with each other.

People can become “acquaintances” but this is a superficial level of relationship. Most relationships stop at this stage. A small percentage proceeds to the next stage.

2. The “Regularized Communication” Stage

When two people communicate regularly for personal, work-related, social or other reasons, they begin to see behavior patterns of each other and they form mental models of each other. This process is very often an unconscious process on both sides. Our mental model of a person we know consists of:

  • Memories of his actions particularly those that we liked or disliked
  • Personal or work-related qualities we attach to the person based on the pattern of our experiences with him
  • Labels or words we associate with the person
  • Our judgments or attitudes towards the person or how he “measures up” to our own internal standards
  • Our memories of pleasures or hurts we experienced with or due to (in our perception) the person
  • Our level of comfort or trust on the person
  • Etc.

3. The “Mutually Imprisoned” Stage

It is an unfortunate fact that in most cases, we form and revise mental models of people we know largely in an unconscious and therefore unsystematic manner.

Yet, our mental models of people we know, once established inside our heads, affect the way we behave and communicate with those people. They provide screens which color or slant our perceptions of those people. We stop seeing them as they truly are because our mental models act as if we are looking at them through colored eyeglasses or lenses. If our mental models of a person includes a strong judgment we have formed about him, for better or for worse, that person becomes the beneficiary or victim of our (internal) judgment.

We stop seeing people as they truly are because our experiences about him from the past intrude in how we experience him in the present. Our mental models then become our self-inflicted but unconscious mental box or mental prison that dictates how we relate to the person for the rest of our life. Then, we both become the unknowing victims of our unconscious mental models of each other. Unfortunately, we are often unaware that we have entered the “mutually imprisoned” stage.

A common negative result of this tyranny of our mental models of each other is divorce. It is likely that spouses who have come to dislike each other have formed mental models of each other that are no longer true representations of the other person. A well-known positive result of the tyranny of our mental models is the public adulation over Michael Jackson. It is likely that the mental model of Michael Jackson in the mind of a fan is a distant or perhaps distorted representation of the true Michael Jackson. Whether positive or negative, our unconscious mental models can act like tyrants who distort our thinking and seeing without our knowledge and permission.

To escape this stage, we need tools for consciously managing our mental models about people we work with — a pre-requisite for productive learning and working together as a group. We need Indigo Learning Practices.



Thanks to Wikimedia Commons and my acknowledgement to Alan Light for the use of the image in this blog post.

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The Reflective Knowledge Worker

June 17, 2009

If self-reflection (or similar internal listening skills; see my last blog post on “Learning How to Learn”) is a key to successful business leadership, then self-reflection is also a key to success for knowledge workers.

What is the first practical step in learning self-reflection? From my experience, the doorway to learning internal listening skills is conscious moment-to-moment control of attention.

Practice it now. As you read these words, your attention is on the computer screen. If a phone rings now, your attention will be diverted to the telephone and to what the caller is saying. After the call, you revert your attention to reading this blog post starting from where you left off.

All of these are externally-focused and externally-driven attention. As much as 99% of our attention at the workplace is external.

Practice being also aware of how your mind is responding to what you are reading now. Is there agreement, or doubt? Does your mind shoot off on something you remember that is related to what you just read? Is your mind now making a silent internal conversation stemming from the ideas expressed here? Are you noticing any discomfort triggered by a word or phrase? Is your interest level moving up or down?

It all starts by your decision to consciously control where you focus your attention. There are times when your mind — without your conscious control or decision — shoots off in a different direction while you are attending, say, a meeting. In each such occasion of absent-mindedness you miss what is being said for several seconds.

The mind — the prime tool and asset of knowledge workers — is often like a poorly-tamed horse that literally gets off-track every now and then. And worse, the horse rider (=we) fails to notice this most of the time! Control of the horse begins with conscious attention: the horse rider must direct his attention on his horse consciously and every moment along the way.

The knowledge worker depends very much on his horse; therefore he must be a constantly alert horse rider.

untamed horse

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L13- Learning How to Learn

June 14, 2009

From two earlier blog posts (F9- Economics of Unconscious Learning and Q13- Learning = KM + “Power of the Third Kind”) we noted two things:

  1. Most (about 70%-95%) of our individual knowledge now we did not learn from formal schooling. We learned more from work and from life than from formal means.
  2. Our learning from work/life has been largely an unplanned, informal and unconscious process.

Isn’t that shocking?!

The UNESCO Task Force on Education for the Twenty-first Century, headed by former two-time EU president Jacques Delors, concluded in 1996 that there are four critical types of learning for the 21st century:

  • Learning how to learn, or learning to know
  • Learning to do
  • Learning to live together, or learning to relate
  • Learning to be

(see “Learning: the Treasure Within; Report of the UNESCO Task Force on Education for the Twenty-first Century”)

JACQUES DELORS (picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

JACQUES DELORS (picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Our school systems are primarily aimed at “learning to do” or providing professional or technical knowledge. This D Series of blogs on Indigo Learning Practices is aimed at contributing skills towards the other three largely ignored but equally critical learning, particularly learning to live together — a foundational skill in building relationship capital.

To develop a new formal and systematic system for learning how to learn, we start by being conscious and keenly observant of our daily learning processes. Psychologists call this practice metacognition. MIT Prof. Donald Schon studied and described the personal knowledge processes of a “reflective practitioner”. Prof. Charles Tart of the University of California at Davis calls it “self observation” (interview by Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove in the book “Thinking Allowed: Conversations in the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery”).

At CCLFI, we call it internal attention or simply “listening within”.

Start sharpening your skills of listening within by practicing the following:

  • Study your attention habits. When you read newspapers, notice that you habitually zero in on certain sections and always ignore other sections. Is it time for you to free yourself from your unconscious attention habits and consciously plan and select your information sources?
  • When you encounter a “silly” or “stupid” idea, it is your unconscious mental models, assumptions and value systems that are labelling the idea as “silly” or “stupid” or whatever. Suspend your judgment; hold your horses. Use the moment as a mindful opportunity to discover your unconscious assumptions. Are they still valid? Or are they valid in this instance?
  • Have you tied yourself to a pet theory? A theory or framework is double-edged: it allows you to see things that otherwise you could hardly see, but it also channels your seeing and thinking in particular and predictable ways. Theories and frameworks come and go. Is it time to let go of a “pet”?
  • Notice what things, events, words, experiences, people or any trigger make you uncomfortable, uneasy or drain you of energy. Very often these things happen repeatedly but you never noticed, until it surfaces as disproportionate anger, headache or sickness (because these drains lower your body’s resistance to germs and viruses). Listen to your body. Practice observing what and how these things drain you. Study how you can avoid these energy drains. An energy drain may stem from an internal resistance on your part against something; if you find a way to inwardly accept that something then the energy drain can fade away.
  • Be aware of your learning preferences and your thinking and learning style. Take a free online MBTI test or online learning style inventory and be more aware of the best ways that YOU learn.
  • Install a feedback habit within you. After finishing a task exceptionally well, ask yourself “how did I do that?” and “what made me do that task so well?” or “what do I do to repeat the success?” Practice the same feedback habit after making a mistake. Write down your learning and other insights in a journal that you can re-read later.
  • When you are driving in heavy traffic and you notice that you are tense, watch the tension within you. Many times the tension will die off simply by watching it. Don’t say “I am tense” because that statement makes you identify yourself with the tension. Objectify the tension by saying to yourself “I see tension in me”. Of course, continue to pay attention to your driving! Practice this skill minutes before you attend a meeting that you expect will be tense. Start by noticing and watching that expectation within you. That expectation is inside your head; what will happen in reality could well be something else!

In the February 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Bill George and his associates wrote about learning how to be an inspiring and empowering leader. They asked 75 members of the Advisory Council of the Stanford Graduate School of Business what is the most important capability that leaders must develop. Their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness!

If you have your own personal practice in sharpening how you learn from daily work and daily life, please share it by clicking the Comment link below.

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Practical Exercise #15: Ingredients of Effective Group Action

February 28, 2009

Let us go through an exercise of constructing a mental model. To ensure that we follow the wisdom of Gregory Bateson (see previous blog post by clicking here: Q16), we will proceed in this manner: start with data from personal experiences -> discern pattern from the data -> construct mental model including concepts. This scientific methodology is called “grounded theory” because you don’t start at “Cloud 9” but you instead start from the “ground” of experience in the real world.

From your own experiences, what are the ingredients of effective group action? (the question comes from the definition of “knowledge”; click here to see blog post F5)

Get a paper and pencil and please add to my list below:

    physical energy
    access to needed information
    support from outside
    financial resources
    empowering policies
    mental model
    trust on one another
    shared concepts
    common goal
    mutual support
    good procedure
    cash and incentives
    good system
    conducive workplace

    (Please add to the list from your experiences.)

Next, let us cluster them together. Do you agree with this grouping? Are the members in each group similar enough to warrant the grouping? Do the groups make sense to you?


Then, we place labels on the clusters or groups:


VOILA! We now have CCLFI’s expanded KM framework! The entries in green are motivational factors that cut across the tangible and the three intangible forms (see blog post D11):



  • In F5 we learned that “knowledge” is capacity for effective action (I had written on this in the Overview chapter of a KM book published by the Asian Productivity Organization; click HERE).
  • We saw that “know-what” (=knowledge) is not enough; it must be combined with “willing-to” (=motivation); I reported this in a KM conference last year at Kuala Lumpur (click HERE).
  • In F1 we saw that the expanded KM framework overlaps with the intellectual capital framework (Click here to download paper to be published by EADI/IKM).
  • We learned that intellectual capital has three (mostly intangible) components: human, structural and stakeholder capital, but we also saw that “stakeholder capital” and “customer capital” are too narrow, and must be broadened to “relationship capital” that also includes relationships within the organization (reported in our Singapore paper and also in my Overview chapter of the APO book).

A mental model is double-edged: a good one enables you to see the world better, but a bad one is like a blindfold or blinder that allows you to see only a distorted slice of the world.

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Q16- Seeing World Problems: Building(?) on Gregory Bateson

February 27, 2009

We have constructed mental models inside our heads about the world around us, about the people we know, about how things work. Mental models are our mental representations of the real world. Other words that mean much the same as mental model are: assumption, mental box, belief, stereotype, concept, framework. According to Peter Senge, the ability to consciously manage our mental models is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization.


Some mental models work better than others. For example, two decades ago the Soviet Union’s mental model of a national economy is one run through central planning. After seventy years, they learned that central planning does not work. And so they replaced their mental model from central planning to market-based economy: instead of a handful of bureaucrats in Moscow making decisions on the national economy, over a hundred million Russian consumers are now making decisions on what will be produced, and at what quality and price.

According to Gregory Bateson, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks.”

It is everyone’s task to always revisit and revalidate one’s mental models. We may be contributing to creating or perpetuating problems, big or small; and we can prevent this if we always check our assumptions, concepts, mental boxes, beliefs, stereotypes, etc.

Take the word “private.” What is our concept of “private”?

How does our concept of “private” square with what has been observed and discovered by ecologists about how the real world works? Ecologists will tell you that:

  • Wo/man is part of nature; s/he is part of the “web of life”
  • Everything is inter-related; “no man is an island”
  • An action or project will always have unexpected, undesired or unintended “side effects”
  • Nature is not an unlimited “sink” or unlimited “source”; nature does not give a “free ride.”


A lady demographer friend made a remark I cannot forget: “the sex act is the most private act that can lead to a host of public consequences.” Of course, a baby born will result to a lifetime demand for food, oxygen, natural resources, living space, employment, schooling, public services, etc. contributing to public problems such as resource depletion, pollution, crowding, public expenditure, etc. and also to value creation through services, innovation, etc.

We need to re-examine how our concepts and beliefs square with how nature in fact works. What makes science a successful human endeavor is how scientists keep re-checking and improving their mental models to be ever better representations of the real world.

Failure to continuously learn and improve our mental models, concepts and beliefs will create or perpetuate more problems.

Look at these mental models:

  • A private corporation may be operating a factory that discharges waste water into the sewage system (mental model: “Nature is an endless ‘sink’ “).
  • A dictator or corrupt president, fearing the end of his power, puts his ill-gotten wealth in a secret bank account (mental model: “My and my family’s benefit above everything else”).
  • She recommends disapproval of an office colleague’s proposal, ignoring its merits (mental model: “He cheated once; therefore he will cheat again”).
  • A private individual flicks a cigarette stub by the roadside, starting a forest fire (mental model: “I can do whatever it damn pleases me to do”).
  • A Hamas fighter’s mental model: “God will reward my martyrdom with paradise.”
  • An Israeli soldier’s mental model: “God gave this land to me.”

According to Albert Einstein, “A problem cannot be solved using the same mindset that created it.”

What do you think?

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Limits of the Possible

February 24, 2009

An hour ago, I saw on television the excited faces of young Mumbai children and the rest of the cast of the 8 Academy Awards winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” They and winning Director Danny Boyle were being interviewed at Hollywood by BBC. “We are on top of the world” exclaimed one of the young boys. The scene shifted to a crowd in Mumbai cheering and jumping as they saw all these on an outdoor TV screen.

Cast of Slumdog Millionnaire

Cast of Slumdog Millionnaire with Director Danny Boyle (reproduced with permission of

Suddenly, the limits of the possible in the minds of many Mumbai slum children have been breached. You CAN become a Hollywood celebrity. You CAN dream greater dreams. You CAN achieve greater things.

Three months ago, the victory of President Barack Hussein Obama triggered a similar breaching of the limits of the possible among African-Americans and among blacks and minority groups all over the world. The color of your skin is NOT a limit to becoming the most powerful person on Planet Earth. Young black children watch on television the Obama girls, Sasha and Malia, in the White House. The concrete reality in front of their eyes is changing the limiting assumptions at the back of their minds.

The limits of the possible are not out there. Those limits are inside our heads. They are self-inflicted (or parent-inflicted or teacher-inflicted) limits. And this is very important: they limit our seeing, thinking and deciding in a manner we are often not conscious about. They imprison us but we don’t know it.

This morning I had coffee with an economist of a development agency. For many years, he had been practicing and advocating that the political PROCESS of economic reform is as important as the technical CONTENT of the economic reform. Some colleagues do not see what he sees, and so they do not agree with him. Others agree with him, but because their expertise is on technical content, they are hesitant and unsure how to proceed. Traditional economists hesitate to touch the political economy, yet they know from experience that success of development projects depend on political, socio-cultural, personal and other non-technical factors. They are more comfortable working within their familiar mental boxes. The traditional economists are men and women of goodwill and great intelligence, but their own unconscious limiting assumptions prevent them from seeing more fully. The result: continuing low development aid effectiveness, many failed projects, and projects that wittingly or unwittingly strengthen the ills in a recipient country’s political economy.

“Presencing,” (see Q15) sensing the emergent (see Practice #10) and innovation (see D14 and D19) (and our other important decision making) can better proceed if we first learn how to manage our self-inflicted mental boxes.

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