What makes ideas “click” for people?

“Ooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
-The unmistakable sound of realization!

You’ve been working for months with Bob, your coworker, to understand the value of project charters. At least once a week you meet, and you’ve been sending him sample charters and talking through how to get sponsor sign-off. One day, you show Bob a draft charter for the specific work he will be doing, and he “gets it:” he tilts his head back, his eyes open wide, he smiles, and he says “Oh! I get it!”

What happened? What made things “click” for Bob? And how can we learn from that and apply it to improving IT and how it’s managed?

My primary lens for thinking about what’s happened is a change in Bob’s “mental models.”

What is a mental model?

A mental model is how you, in your head, think things work. Your mental models come from your experiences, such as your observations, your beliefs, and what others have told you. For example, I am drinking hot tea, so part of my mental model is that spilling this tea on the computer would be bad for the computer. I have never personally spilled liquid on a computer *knocks wood* but I’ve heard it’s bad. If one day someone invents a “spill-proof” computer, it might take me a while to change my mental model to think it’s not bad to spill things on a computer.

The thing is, it’s extremely difficult to realize that your mental models are not magically shared with others. Someone who’d never learned that liquid hurts computers (say, my 2 year old son) wouldn’t necessarily know it’s bad to spill things on computers. And yet, I would groundlessly presume he somehow knew you shouldn’t spill things on computers, and this would cause all sorts of grief for both of us.

When something “clicks” for someone, their mental model for that thing all-of-the-sudden is aligned with your mental model.

Why did it take so long for Bob to understand?

In Bob’s case, you were aware he didn’t understand project charters and you were trying to help him learn about them. You knew there was a gap–so why did it take so long for him to understand? There was probably another “upstream” or foundational mental model you were assuming Bob did share. Here are some example foundational mental models that you and Bob might not have shared:

  • Paper documents are authoritative over conversations
  • Project scope changes cost money
  • The value in planning is well worth the cost of planning
  • Project charters will make your life easier
  • Learning about things is fun (or worth your time)

If you and Bob didn’t share these foundational mental models, he may not be able to process anything that requires that foundation. For example, if he believes scope changes don’t cost money, he probably doesn’t want to learn about the best way to document scope changes. He may (unconsciously or consciously) have a “mental block” preventing him from absorbing what you’re trying to convey.

Once someone has a mental block, they have a variety of difficult-to-interpret ways to deflect ideas that are challenging their way of thinking. Here are some of Bob’s potential reactions, and what they might mean:

  • Bob thinks to himself “this is a waste of time.” You can’t tell what Bob’s thinking, so you don’t know he’s associating everything you’re saying with the thought “this is a waste of time” (and therefore, in a vicious cycle, building additional resistance to the idea). Side note: he could have a very reasonable basis for this belief–for example, if similar initiatives have not been successful in the past.
  • Bob skips meetings, shows up late, or leaves early: You may think Bob doesn’t want to attend. Bob might also be overburdened with work, or Bob’s manager might not support the initiative.
  • Bob nods his head: You take this as a good sign, but Bob may not really understand or he may be nodding “socially” (“yes, I hear what you’re saying”).
  • Bob may use his phone or computer while in meetings: You may take this as a bad sign, but Bob might also learn better through reading, or may have an emergency.
  • Bob agrees to take action consistent with the mental model, such as filling out a charter: Bob may agree to the action, thinking
    • it’s the easiest way to get you to stop talking with him,
    • the charter is a necessary evil (“it’s for an audit”),
    • he doesn’t have to do a good job (“I can have it done in 5 minutes if it doesn’t matter how good a job I do”), or
    • he may just not understand why it’s needed even though he does it.

He may have been “deflecting” what you were saying, and what you were trying to show him, for quite some time. You may not have realized that Bob and you had different foundational mental models.

What finally did it? What made things “click”?

Bob was probably reinforcing his mental block over time as you met–thinking over and over again “this is a waste of time,” or “why is this a project anyway?” He wasn’t able to move past that mental block to listen to what you had to say.

Right before you showed Bob the completed charter, his boss may have been asking him how long the project was going to take, or he could have thought of a new risk to the project, or he could have just gotten burned on another project’s undocumented scope change. He was “primed” to see that project charters solve a problem for him. Then you show him the completed charter that solves the problem. Only then Bob experiences himself the value, allowing him to invalidate his mental block.

When Bob, on his own, invalidates his mental block, then right at that moment he reprocesses what you have been telling him and creates his new mental model all at once. That’s the “click”–Bob realizing for himself that he had a faulty or incomplete foundational mental model.

Now repeat this process for everyone in your organization. :-)

How do you speed up the process of people “getting it”?

Changing people’s mental models is very slow. You have 0% control over how other people think. Sometimes victory is getting them to understand where you’re coming from, so even if they don’t agree they can at least understand your motivation.

Here are a few tips, but there are several really good books that cover this topic in more detail: Leading Change, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help.

First, you don’t need to be the one to change how everyone thinks. Organizations are collections of people, and people learn from one another organically. You need a group of people who understand well enough that they can be the references for others.

Second, look for and identify gaps between people’s mental models. A large part of this is being quiet, asking open-ended questions, and stating your assumptions very explicitly. It is highly unlikely that 100% of a large organization knows the same thing, even something as simple the address for your building.

Third, don’t judge people for having different mental models. They may have very good reasons for thinking that meetings are a waste of time, and judging them does not make it easier for them to change.

Fourth, be open to other ways of thinking yourself. Your mental model may be flawed, or not appropriate for the situation at hand.

As the cliché goes, “it’s all about people.” To improve how IT’s managed, people need to think in similar ways about what IT does and how we can work together. Getting ways of thinking about IT to “click” is a necessary step on the path to building an organization that provides consistent value for campus.

  • Jon Wright

    A great article from HEIT Management. Well written and well said, especially this line: “Changing people’s mental models is very slow. You have 0% control over how other people think.” Patience and listening are crucial to effecting positive organizational change, both through yourself and others.