I have fairly recently come to hate flying. Having lived all over the country and served at different times in roles that require mobility, if have darkened the doorway of many airplanes. If i really think about it, though, my hatred of flying is a severe discomfort with the idea of flying, based on my mental models of the activity. These mental models control the way i see flying and the way i react to it. Some times these mental models are incorrect, resulting in a far greater discomfort with flying than is necessary. Take, for example, the mental model i have which makes me feel like turbulence occurs as a result of an absence of air. This false mental model (turbulence is actually caused by air that blows across the flight of the plane, not an absence of air), it makes me feel as though the plane is liable to fall out of the sky, when in fact it is pretty hard to shake a plane at speed too far in any direction. This understanding contributes to my hatred of flying, and keeps me from sleeping or doing work, even on long flights.
On a recent flight to Europe, i spent some time re-programming my mental model, envisioning the air surrounding the wings, blowing over, under and around them, and the flight was far more enjoyable. This more accurate mental model provided a great deal more integrity between my thoughts and the actual dangers of flying (having worked with a bunch of aircraft engineers for a year, i now have a pretty decent mental model of the actual dangers), and as a result, i was able to feel and act in a way more appropriate to the situation.
A Good Flight Crew Promotes Good Mental Models
It occurred to me this weekend (while waiting for a flight) just how important more experienced people are in affecting other people’s mental models. On an airplane, for example, every time a flight attendant gets up and calmly walks around during turbulence, they are not only taking care of business, but they are reinforcing a mental model of safe air travel. And they should. It is safe. But they have developed their own mental model through thousands, even millions of miles of flying, training, and talking with other people in the business of flying. This fact is doubly true for the pilots – the people most responsible for the overall direction of the plane. If anyone should have a good mental model of turbulence, it is the people who intimately know how the plane works, and how it tends to interact with the environment. The more they act in ways that display a correct underlying mental model, the more likely i am to adopt their accurate mental model.
Today’s Business Turbulence
Almost every business right now is in a situation not that different from an airplane. The turbulence has ratcheted up. Formerly stalwart institutions like banks, newspapers and automobile manufacturers are crumbling left and right. The speed of market change has become dizzying. Old revenue models have faltered, and odd new ones like open source, freemium, etc. seem to be on the rise. Management and employees are overloaded with more information and change than ever before, and this overload is making it even more difficult to find the time to figure out the cause of the overload. A large part of this turbulence is caused by the rise of new media* and social media**. Anyone can create content now, so there is a lot of it out there, and businesses no longer control it. In fact, rather than being disseminators of content, businesses are now buffeted by it on all sides, and the people within these businesses are trying desperately to figure out how to deal with it.
In order to do this, though, they need better mental models. Models which will help us to know if the turbulence of this new media environment is threatening to knock the business out of the sky or if it is just a few crosswinds. I believe it is clear that the new media-fueled changes we are seeing worldwide are partly danger (the very air is being sucked out from under some businesses) and part opportunity (some businesses have ridden the winds to new heights). The trick is to have a good mental model to help figure out which is which. Otherwise, businesses will begin fearing things they shouldn’t (i.e., “..but if we use social media, we might lose control of our brand!” [they have already lost total control of it] or “Social media might undermine our management’s authority” [good managers will gain authority through social media]) and ignoring things they should fear (i.e., “Our people don’t know how to use social media” or “If we don’t start adopting social media for collaboration, it will be hard to attract employees who have become accustomed to using it to boost their productivity”).
A Good Manager Promotes Good Mental Models
In a business (as on an airplane), the people with the biggest responsibility to figure mental models out early are the ones with the most experience in business–the ones who know best the current capabilities of the business and how it has dealt with turbulence in the past. But these people need to really understand the nature of the new media turbulence first. If you are part of the management level (middle, senior and C-Level!) within an organization, you need to start understanding the new media turbulence now, so that you can ensure that your organization’s response to it is based on a correct mental model of that turbulence, and your organization’s response to it. Then, you need to find ways to promote the development of that mental model throughout the organization. If not, things could get ugly:
* New Media – Digital media (as opposed to analog or physical media)
** Social Media – Media created, disseminated and consumed through highly social processes. Examples include blogs, wikis, microblogs (Twitter, etc), online video (YouTube, etc), social networks (Facebook, etc). Social media is a type of new media.