Articles: Blog

To socialise your strategy, create a shared mental model

A shared mental model

Socialising strategy, instead of merely communicating it, is an idea my clients love. But how to do that? Here are six ways to help you socialise your strategy, by creating a shared mental model of your strategy and its underlying thinking. That shared mental model underpins the culture, decisions and actions in the organisation.

By sharing the mental model behind the strategy (or any idea you want to share) you explain the deeper thinking behind the strategy. To get that shared mental model, you can’t simply state the strategy.

So, to share my mental models.  Here are six ways I have used to help clients share their mental models. Six ways you can share your mental models and socialise your strategy:

  1. Understand the different mental models you, and others, have
  2. Get beyond jargon: unpack the idea
  3. Show the whole picture
  4. Create a compelling imperative for change rational and emotional
  5. Give people the time, opportunity and permission to try the new idea
  6. Be the new model yourself.

The details of each are below. Click on each to go directly to the detail.

1. Understand your different mental models

To start, it helps to understand your own mental model, and compare it with the mental models that others might hold. The starting point, is to be clear of your own mental model of your own situation and your strategy. Then, understand the mental models of those you want to influence. Be clear how their mental models differ from your own. To do that you need to ask yourself:

  • What do I know, that others do not?
  • What do I see, that the others do not see?
  • What do I believe, that others do not?
  • What do I anticipate, that the others do not?
  • How do I frame the problem or situation? How do others frame or diagnose what is going on?
  • What facts or evidence do I have, that others do not?

The clearer you are about your own mental model, and how others differ from you, the better. If you are not sure what their model is, ask them how they see or experience things.

2. Get beyond the jargon: unpack the idea

Unpack your thinking to create a shared mental model.

A shared mental model

Unpack your thinking to create a shared mental model

One problem with how we describe our own metal models is that we know them well. Because we are very familiar with the ideas, our own language is often high level. It often summarises complex thoughts in short phases. Others call this ‘jargon’ (or worse). I am sure you can think of examples from other people.

As a result, the words we use to describe our model, often do not contain sufficient detail for others to understand the intricacies. We think we are communicating an idea. Unfortunately, we are only sending a container for the idea; a container that arrives empty.

As an example, years ago, I was working on an IT strategy. All the suppliers were talking about middleware (software that sits in the middle between two other pieces of software). It was not helpful that all the suppliers called their software middleware. So, I banned suppliers using the phrase. This forced them to properly explain what they were talking about, without any of the high-level jargon. As a result, we uncovered 28 different types of middleware that fell into six different camps. The whole conversation about what we wanted became easier, as did selecting the software and a supplier.

In my strategy workshops, I unpack the word ‘strategy’ (I now have 18 different ways the word is used). Creating this richer understanding of ‘strategy’, improves the quality of conversation. As a result, we can talk more easily and clearly, about what matters for that client’s strategy, and which specific aspects need developing.

When you unpack and detail your ideas, you can explain, far better, the intricacies and subtleties. It allows other people to enrich their own language and depth of understanding of the subject. People can then better relate to the parts that affect them. It makes it easier for them to fit the new ideas into their existing mental models, or recognise how it might have to change. Commonly understood language is fundamental to a shared mental model.

3. Show the whole picture, and let people add to it

Help people fill in the spaces in their mental models.

Add missing piece of jigsaw.

People need to fill in the missing piece for themselves

As executives and strategists, we often see (or think we see) a much wider and richer picture than others. (Of course, they often see a more detailed and richer picture of their part of that picture. That, too, is helpful.) We want to help people break out of their ‘silos’ so they can see for themselves how they can fit into the bigger picture. A way to help people appreciate a broader mental model of what is going on, is to widen their view.

Showing the wider picture and landscape, can help this. This wider view might be the competitive space. It might be how customers and partners are working and changing. It might be how technology is changing. It might be a wider view of how the organisation is operating. Whichever you use, show how that context might change and the issues that they may create for the organisation.

People appreciate seeing an honest view of the wider picture. Go further though. Being able to add their experiences into it, also helps to build the reality for them.

4. Create a compelling imperative for change

A few years ago, I interviewed around twenty Chief Executives who had used cultural and behavioural change to improve performance and results. In all cases, they created some sort of compelling imperative for change. This compelling imperative is a rational and emotional case. They also spoke in the language of the people who needed to understand the need for change.

These are not ‘burning platforms’ that force people to jump (A metaphor I hate). Compelling imperatives make the case for change: one that people can understand at a rational level – it makes sense; and at an emotional level – it feels right. The people then understand the ‘why’ of the change, and are more open to change.

I don’t want this article to be too long, so if you are looking for examples that will bring it to life, give me a call. I’ll happily provide some for you.

5. Give people the time, opportunity and permission to try on the new model for themselves

There is an important piece about socialising strategy that gets missed. It is that people need time. They need time to mull over the ideas, time to discuss the ideas with their colleagues, time to see and touch the evidence for themselves. They need time to explore and adjust their own mental models. You cannot rush changing someone else’s mental model. There is a simple reason for that. It is not your mental model: it is their mental model. They have to change it for themselves.

A common example of rushing a shared mental model, is a salesperson who talks too much, even when you are thinking about what they had said previously. (I am sure you have had this). To avoid this classic mistake, watch people’s faces. Notice when they start thinking and start to process information. They are building their mental model. Give them time to think. More information is not helpful; worse, it is noise and distraction. Let them test, work through and adjust their models of the world, in their head, in their time.

5.1 Give the organisation time to share a mental model

The same is true of an organisation – the timescale is probably longer, as it is a wider community, but the same approach applies. Socialising is about talking through those shared mental models and what they mean to each other.

5.2 Give people experiences

People also change their mental models through experience. So, give people ways to explore and test the alien models. Find ways to allow people to touch it, see it in action, play with it and work out what is changed and what it means. Let them gather them tangible evidence, that they have experienced.

5.3 Give people permission

Executives, who are good at managing change, give their people permission to try the new way of working. This is not the ‘burning platform, jump over there, or else’ approach. It is allowing people to try out the new behaviours and see how they work. You are giving people permission to try new ways of behaving and doing things, safely. To find the new ‘rules of the game’. In doing so, they are unlearning their existing limits and Deeply Embedded Learnt Behaviours (I call these DELBs). They are starting to discover what is now acceptable.

6. Finally: Be the new model

When you exemplify and model the new behaviour, it sets the standard for others to follow. If a manager is talking about change, but they continue in the old ways of working, they will not be taken seriously. To be taken seriously, you must epitomise the change, and provide a model of the change that others can follow.

When you are modelling the new behaviours, it is not explicit communication in the standard sense. However, the simple actions that suit the new mental model, can see speak much louder than any words of communication.

7. Conclusion

It does not matter whether you are after small shifts in behaviour, implementing a major strategy change or explain the paradigm shifts that the organisation is seeing (More on these another time).

In each case, share your mental models. Help people understand the mental models you have. Listen for, and to, their mental models. Make it easy for other people to adjust their mental models, so they can refine their ways of thinking, behaving and working.

That way you will have shared mental models, and have socialised the ideas behind your strategy.

Next steps?

To learn more about communicating and socialising strategy effectively, read our Executive guide to Communicating and Socialising your strategy.

To get expert help and advice on communicating and socialising strategy simply contact Phil, Author “Communicating Strategy”

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