For the past two weeks, we have been exploring thinking in systems. In part one, we explored definitions of a system and the rules which help us do this. Last week we explored a three-step process that can help us take any problem or issue and understand its systemic nature.

While I believe the rules and three-step process are helpful in understanding systems, to me the most useful concept in thinking in systems is understanding our mental models and their role in thinking in systems.

The Largest Problem: Mental Models
Mental models are cognitive tools which help us understand cause and effect relationships in our environment. Mental models are the heart of thinking in systems in that they include both our understanding of thinking and systems.

Since the world and all of its basic systems are very complex, as humans we develop these inexact models to help explain and simplify these systems. These models can be concrete as in a map, or abstract as are the mental models which we all carry around in our heads.

All the problems we face as leaders are represented by our mental models which is how we represent or think about the problem or situation in our mind. For instance, only until the mental model of how our universe changed did we advance our thinking. Or not until we changed our mental model of airflow over a wing did we get flight. Think about that aha! moments of insight you have had in which a mental model you had about something or somebody changed forever.

Mental models are inherent in everything we do as school leaders. We have a mental model for student behavior, for powerful instruction, for school culture, and for why people behave the way they do.

However, “ whenever we do not get the results we want, whenever the behavior of a system surprises us, whenever the treatment does not solve the problem, it is the real world giving us feedback that there’s something wrong with our mental model”.

This feedback seems to be happening a lot in today’s environment as the complexity of the systems we are engaged in has outpaced our ability to develop new and more complex mental models. Complexity means in a sense more abstraction, information, interconnections, interrelationships, and perspectives all making our current mental models highly prone to error. Even in a small school of 500 students think about all of the information flowing by text message, or the number of interconnections between students.

This is the nature of the so-called “wicked problems” we discussed in the last blog. They are wicked because there is a mismatch between the way the real world system works and the way we think they work. We try and derive our solutions for today’s problems from yesterday’s simple or outdated mental models, and then we wonder why things get worse.

Because we cannot dump our mental models and start from scratch, developing deeper and richer mental models must become a priority for school leaders today. How is this done? A few pieces of crucial advice.

  • Always be willing to change your mental models. Be wary of preferences you keep resorting back to in solutions.
  • Know which systems on which to keep an eye and ear. Student and staff culture are essential systems that can erupt quickly.
  • Always look for patterns- what is the system inclined to do? Systems organize themselves around patterns of behavior and interaction so Invest time in seeing- not solving
  • Look for simple rules and judge the effectiveness by nudging or breaking one of the rules.
  • Understand interrelationships in numerous ways to see cause and effect differently. Social media has become a critical way people now interrelate, so understand and don’t take it for granted.
  • Use learning as the key strategy- probe, discover, experiment and see what happens then do it again and again until you see progress.
  • Look to integrate many fields into your mental models. Every idea and discipline has something to offer so read widely and see what makes sense in your context.
  • Don’t confuse complicated with the complex. We know how to handle complicated with good practice. It is just hard work. We don’t understand complexity so you have to probe complex problems and see what emerges over time.
  • Think in cycles- not in lines. We were taught to think linearly: X always cause Y. In complex problem spaces though X and Y may never even meet.

    Mental models in a sense then are our best effort to get reality right without the ability ever fully to capture reality. We cannot ever honestly know all of what is happening in a system or how things are pushing and pulling at each other to influence behavior, and we often fear jumping into the system without better information.

    So, the skill of gaining perspective in the midst of action is one that can’t be taken for granted.

    We often get pulled into the action, when we need to play and observe the game simultaneously, contemplate in action, or as  Heifitz & Linsky (2002) say it: getting off the dance floor and up on the balcony.

    We call it getting on top of the system to get a better look at how the dynamics are playing out. Once on top, use the advice above, then get back into the action fully knowing the more complex the system, the more times you will have to climb back up.


Heifetz, R.A. & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line. Cambridge, MA, Harvard Business School Press.