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How to Read a Mental Model Diagram

newsletter #37 | 19-June-2018

Right off the bat, you can tell. In an opportunity map (a mental model diagram above the horizontal line with your support aligned beneath the towers) you will see big gaps below the towers, or places where there’s so much content that it piles up into funny shapes. You can also tell things based on the colors. Here’s an example opportunity map.

Opportunity Map: mental model diagram on top with services & support aligned beneath

So, let’s take a quick look.

  1. Gaps: There are two whole mental spaces (between the upright lines) that have no support for the towers above. The first thing to do is investigate what this signifies.
    1a. Maybe it’s something that came up in the listening sessions that the organization just never sees itself getting into. In this example, the first empty gap is about how participants in the industry pay people and give bonuses. The second empty gap is about hiring, coaching, and monitoring employees. Participants in the listening sessions clearly think of it as part of the purpose they are pursuing. These might be areas for expansion, helping this organization go in a direction of support that the competition aren’t geared up for. Or these might be areas the organization wants to keep away from. This decision should be a consciously considered rather than left as an assumption.
    1b. Maybe these gaps show reasoning that certain thinking-style segment considers part of accomplishing their purpose, and you realize that your organization has been focused on a different thinking-style segment by default. You can tell from the colors of the boxes in the diagram that the first gap represents one thinking-style exclusively (blue), while the second gap represents all the discovered thinking-styles (blue, pink, purple, orange, white). The organization may want to consider how well it supports the blue thinking-style in other parts of the diagram as they consider their decision in part 1a, above.
  2. Weaknesses: There are many mental spaces with only a few boxes of support below the line. There are also mental spaces with only one type of support, that doesn’t match all of the thinking-styles above.
    2a. Where there are only a few boxes for a whole mental space, it may be another situation where your organization doesn’t want to get involved. The second mental space in the above diagram is about finding work for the employees, and it only shows two boxes below the line. But if the organization isn’t opposed to serving this mental space, this is an area ripe for new ideas. For example, the organization could consider the opportunity to offer connections between the businesses it serves, in case one business has so much work they wish to offload it to another business, or something similar.
    2b. There may be several boxes beneath a mental space, but they only offer peripheral support. The last mental space is about planning the items that will be worked upon, and the support there currently is threadbare, only offering the location of the employees that could possibly help with these items. The location doesn’t really help this business assign work, but it could if more information came along with it — and if the database containing this information about the items to be worked upon can be hooked up. It may not necessarily be difficult to provide better support here. Again, it’s something worth discussing rather than dismissing entirely.
    2c. In the ninth mental space, there are a lot of boxes below the towers. In this case the towers represent a combination of thinking this organization never saw itself getting into, or only peripherally. But this mental space is about the businesses deciding how to grow their business, and the organization has an incredible amount of data that shows where the growth thresholds are. It’s tempting to skip over this mental space because of the two counts against it, but upon executive discussion, this could become the most interesting opportunity of all, to provide custom consulting based on growth data trends accrued across businesses.
Burgeoning, generic, one-size-fits-all content under many of these towers — does not go deep enough to truly support the thinking styles and reasoning depicted

3. Funny-shaped piles: There are several places in this new example where there is so much support that it has to be shoe-horned in to the diagram. Usually this means that the organization has been too focused on certain activities and not considering the broader landscape, which is what we discussed in part 1, above. But it also can mean there’s a hiccup in the process.

3a. A hiccup is occurring in this diagram around the physical items being sold by this organization. The purchasing division has to pay for and inventory the items and return some of them for upgrades or repair. In the second, fourth, and fifth mental spaces you can see they cascading amount of accreting solutions this organization has put into place to help the businesses pay for and manage the physical items. This is an opportunity to consider whether the organization can support these businesses better by doing the management on their behalf, thus allowing the businesses to focus on their real work.
3b. In the third mental space, there’s a huge tumble of content under one tiny tower. Upon investigation, this represents installing the physical items and software the businesses buy from this organization. Judging from the amount of content, it looks like it’s very difficult to install an item. Are there improvements this organization can make to the installation process? Can the organization simplify the item enough to make installation easier? Can the organization provide an installation service to these businesses? There’s a lot to discuss based on this mental space.

Even at a glance, it’s easy to pick out a few types of opportunities for an organization just based on the shapes and colors aligned in the diagram. The diagram is a catalyst to discussion about strategic direction, weaknesses to improve, and specific opportunities.



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Indi Young

Indi Young

Freelance problem space researcher helping digital clients find opportunities to support diversity; Time to Listen —