Mental Models And Metaphors:

How To Stay On The Same Page When You’re Not In The Same Place

In a physical work environment, ambient information helps us stay oriented. For example:

  • a colleague’s expression as she leaves a conference room signals she’s overloaded despite cheerfully accepting another assignment
  • a whiteboard sketch in a huddle room reminds a team of the recent “unlock” that got everything moving
  • a leader's body language or gestures are easily interpretable 

Passive signals like these make it much easier for the team to gauge the context and know how to respond. Now that we’ll be leading remote and hybrid teams for the long-term, leaders need creative strategies to help their teams stay on the same page.

One vital component is shared mental models—constructs for how things work. All of us continuously and automatically form these models to organize our thinking, make sense of complexity, and decide how to navigate our worlds.

Leaders carry around dozens of mental models about how an organization is supposed to work. However, they rarely make them sufficiently explicit to their teams. In that void, everyone makes up their own. Inevitably, they differ—creating recurring friction points.

Here are common, competing mental models we see in organizations:

  • Urgency versus Quality: If one group’s mantra is “good today is better than great tomorrow” and a cross-functional partner thinks “never let good get in the way of great,” they will constantly be disappointed or at odds with each other.
  • Presentation versus Dialogue: One school of thought is that leaders should be presented with highly polished and data-driven recommendations. As a result, a team might toil for weeks to bring something sufficiently rigorous to the executive team. Another perspective is that leaders are there to be thought partners and coaches. You bring them back-of-the-napkin concepts, and they help give the ideas that shape the team’s direction.Both can be true, but without a common expectation, teams will consistently miss the mark when engaging leaders.
  • Partners versus Service Centers: Most organizations have formed hybrid organizational models, such as agile pods (centered on outcomes) combined with functional teams (centered on expertise). Absent a shared mental model, pods will see the expertise teams as resource centers to be called upon as needed, while the expertise teams will see the pods as the execution arm of a global strategy. Unresolved, this difference will manifest in every budget, resource, and prioritization conversation.

To help your teams thrive in the next normal, see it as your job to establish and maintain shared mental models for what you’re up to and how you’ll get there.  Think of them as reference points for collective understanding.

Here are three ways:

  1. Analogies and Metaphors: Metaphors and analogies  are exceptionally efficient ways to accelerate insight.  If you see recurring points of friction, think about the best metaphor or analogy for your system and communicate it explicitly. One team used the analogy of a hybrid car to explain how their hybrid structure would work: We’re one car, headed to one destination. We have two engines, a gas engine and an electric one that propels us forward. Both are necessary and equal.  In any given situation, we use the one best suited to the conditions.
  2. Guiding Principles: In the great book Switch, authors Dan and Chip Heath tell the story of a struggling Brazilian railroad who turned it around through several  counter-intuitive guiding principles: 1: Money would be invested only in projects that would earn more revenue in the short-term; 2: The best solution to any problem was the one that would cost the least money up front—even if it ended up costing more in the long term; 3: Options that would fix a problem quickly were preferred to slower options that would provide superior long-term fixes. Establish similarly specific, meaningful guiding principles for your organization, and your teams will move more quickly and autonomously, with a much lower risk of getting off-track.
  3. Team Ethos: Ritz-Carlton’s motto is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” Zappo’s mantra is “we’re a customer service company who happens to sell shoes.” McKinsey confers an “obligation to dissent” on its consultants. By establishing a strong, distinctive ethos, each of these companies help employees form a mental model for how to make choices in moments of truth. In a virtual context, it’s more important than ever to name your ethos and imbue it with meaning.

Without the moment-to-moment cues teams unconsciously rely on, a clear mental model provides consistent guardrails to keep everyone on the same page as you work together to navigate the road ahead.

Shani Harmon and Renee Cullinan founded Stop Meeting Like This to change the way the world works. Follow them on LinkedIn and Twitter, and subscribe to their quarterly newsletter.