Mental Frames and Strategy

For the strategist, a useful theory provides a way of understanding the dynamics of the complex strategic environment, recognizable indicators or warning signals of change, and agreed-upon means of dealing with change.  Simply put, a theory is one's notion of cause and effect.

In his influential book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge refers to hypotheses about cause and effect as mental models.  To Senge, mental models are “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (Senge 1990: 8).  Mental models are useful and, indeed, unavoidable.  By nature, we form beliefs about cause and effect.  One person may form a mental model that says people are best moved toward excellent work by the promise of monetary rewards.  Someone else may hold to the mental model that the best determinant of good and diligent work is the intrinsic satisfaction of the effort itself.  Both of these mental models can be stated in cause and effect terms.  A good mental model is “disconfirmable.”  That is, we can put models and hypotheses to the test through experimentation or simply through continued observation of events and results.

You will find a number of websites touting the notion that "strategic thinking" is simply another word for "systems thinking."  This is a dangerous misconception.  Look at it this way... is a strategy a system?  Is a system a strategy?  Hardly. I will try do my best to differentiate these two concepts in the text below.

To put theories or mental models to work , we use an approach referred to as systems thinking.  While strategic thinking involves consideration of the big picture, systems thinking begins when we consider a real-world phenomenon and seek to understand the cause and effect relationships characteristic of a “system.”  A systems thinker wonders how an organization works, looking at the parts as dynamic aspects of the whole.  It is the interrelationships of the elements of an organization that interests the systems thinker. 

While D-quadrant (big picture) thinking, as we have seen, is critical to determining the direction to take toward the future, we’d have no means of judging the efficacy of one possible strategy over another without A-quadrant (logical, analytical, fact-based, and quantitative) thinking—which is to say, systems thinking.   To formulate a workable strategy, the strategist must understand the connections among the constituent parts of the system, must understand how internal organizational capabilities dovetail with the dynamics of the external environment. 

Once a theory of cause and effect is established, then, the strategist learns to observe and utilize feedback from the environment.  Feedback is  a term that grew out of systems theory, also known as cybernetics , which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s.

"The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding a simple concept called "feedback" that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other."

"Ultimately, systems thinking simplifies  life by helping us to see the deeper patterns lying behind the events and the details."

Though a mental model—a hypothesis about cause and effect—provides a useful way of understanding the dynamics and working of the world around us, blind adherence to entrenched models can be dangerous.  Once we close our eyes to disconfirming evidence, once we fail to see the weaknesses of our assumptions about cause and effect, we have failed as systems thinkers.  History, of course, is replete with examples of people adhering stubbornly to old paradigms despite overwhelming evidence that a new way of thinking has become necessary.

Mental models become the frames through which we view the world.  We attend to what is inside our frame, oblivious sometimes to what occurs outside our frames, which can lead to dangerous blind spots.  Frames can be useful insofar as they direct our attention toward the information we seek.  But they can also constrict our peripheral vision, keeping us from noticing important information and, perhaps, opportunities.  Once liberating, mental models can become shackles.

As an illustration of the way in which mental models and frames can get out of hand, consider Donald Schon’s concept of a generative metaphor. A generative metaphor is an “implicit metaphor that can cast a kind of spell on a community.  All solutions are understood in terms of the implicit metaphor.”  Some work cultures, for example, use a sports analogy as their generative metaphor, ubiquitously describing events in sports language and casting solutions as “game plans.”  A generative metaphor like this can be healthy, but it can also restrict creativity and problem-solving, since the “team” may miss out on ideas and options not endemic to the metaphorical world at hand. 

At times, an over-used generative metaphor can lead to a group dynamic known as groupthink.  When cultural propensities like this become problematic, leaders can stimulate positive organizational change by introducing new and useful generative metaphors as they communicate with others.  The new metaphor can provide people with a lens through which to see things anew and lead to positive change in the work atmosphere and business results.

Perhaps the most important use of systems thinking in modern organizations is in the pursuit of what Donald Schon, Chris Argyris, Peter Senge, and others have called a learning organization.  Schon defines a learning organization as “systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.”  Senge says that learning organizations are “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”