How could an experienced outdoor enthusiast ignore obvious red flags and get hopelessly lost or injured? You would think that only novices would find themselves in these circumstances. Yet in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales analyzes experience after experience where individuals with skills—who knew better—failed to heed clear and common warning signs. This seems counterintuitive. How can someone with deep experience make rookie errors of judgement?
Before climbers tackle a major hike or climb, they have a clear picture of what the trail, mountain, or weather is supposed to be like. They build a strong mental model of how events are expected to play out. And sometimes the model is so strong that it overpowers the reality of how things actually are.
The hard truth? If we have successfully climbed five mountains in the past, the sixth time we may be climbing a mental model of a mountain instead of climbing the actual mountain in front of us. Experienced climbers can rely on their experience and mental representations to the detriment of their current climb. When this happens, they ignore weather conditions. They overlook “known unknowns” and threats to progress. They take shortcuts.
The problem with mental models.
Experience is incredibly helpful, and the mental models that we build from our experiences help our critical thinking and decision-making. As Gonzales puts it:
Every model of the world comes with its own underlying assumptions based on experience, memories, secondary emotions, and emotional bookmarks, all of which influence what we expect to happen and what we plan to do about it.
These models are essential to the development of skills in any field because of how we store patterns of information in our long-term memory. In their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, authors Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool emphasize the critical role that mental representations play in our ability to develop expertise:
All mental representations…make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short-term memory. Indeed, one could define a mental representation as a conceptual structure designed to sidestep the usual restrictions that short-term memory places on mental processing.
In layman’s terms, mental models are the foundation of developing expertise in any skill, because they allow us to recall and store information more efficiently. But when these models are inaccurate they spell disaster. As Gonzales illustrates, it can be shocking how strongly people hold on to those faulty mental models in the face of obvious red flags, even when their very lives hang in the balance:
Mental models can be surprisingly strong and the abilities of working memory surprisingly fragile. A psychologist who studies how people behave when they’re lost told me, “I saw a man I was hiking with smash his compass with a rock because he thought it was broken. He didn’t believe we were heading in the right direction.”
Models that are inaccurate or improperly applied, that we hold on to despite clear evidence to the contrary, are a significant liability. When something does not fit our perspective, sometimes we reject it instead of creating a new model.
How to manage actual projects, not mental models.
Project management, like all other skillsets, is honed through the development of effective mental models involving several different methodologies and project types. If I’ve just been handed a project that kicks off within 24 hours, the work before me can feel mountainous, like I need to prepare for a climb. In addition to keeping several other projects on track, including meetings and communication, I need to set up the team for success and launch the new project well. As I do so, I rely on the mental representations from my past experiences, including how other projects went, the problems we encountered, and the adjustments we made to succeed.
However, it is possible to rely on my experience to the detriment of the project. As a project manager, the idea that I might be managing a mental model instead of the actual project rattles me. I never want to approach a project with an overconfident attitude of, “I’ve done this several times. I got this.”
Whether you’re a project manager or working with them, the following best practices can empower your team to lead with confidence and serve the actual needs of the project, rather than managing a mental model of what you expect the needs to be.
1. Practice knowledge transfer.
When approaching a project, especially if it’s an annual project or similar to other work your team has handled, fight the urge to assume that everyone knows what is needed and when. Instead, meet with the person (or people) closest to the situation to learn what the team needs to do, what business problem it will solve, and when it needs to happen. By practicing knowledge transfer, nothing is assumed. This knowledge transfer personalizes and individualizes the project, protecting us from the temptation to manage a mental model in place of the actual work in front of us.
2. Make project kickoffs non-negotiable.
As the project begins, make sure everyone on the team meets to review the kickoff checklist. Everyone assigned to the project should discuss the same information at the same time. Your team can also archive the checklist to use as reference for any new resources or team members added to the project. These kickoff meetings allow your team to share the best lessons learned from similar projects without making assumptions that the business problems will be exactly like others they have solved.
3. Master the art of the gut check.
In his book, Gonzalez describes a powerful question that often goes unasked when threats are ignored: “I don’t feel quite safe here. Why is that so?” A similar gut check can be a powerful tool on a project team. Encourage your team members to check their thinking with others and look for perspective. To successfully manage a project, it’s important to ask everyone if anything seems off that they may not have put into words. A gut check pulls the team out of their routine and challenges everyone to think deeply about the work and whether anyone has ignored subtle threats that may impede success.
The most successful climbers go into a climb with a mental model but can release it when it doesn’t sync up with actual conditions. Through my work with project management, I’ve found that the most successful projects are managed and completed with people who can also release faulty mental models. Through knowledge transfer, project kickoffs and regular gut checks, you can help the entire team execute the work and stay focused on the right task at the right time to effectively respond to the changing terrain.