How crises disrupt our mental models and what that means

The Covid-19 epidemics constitutes a major event that completely disrupted world life, rendering all forecasts and plans based on them obsolete within a few weeks. The very nature of a surprise is to bring to light an element of our mental models and invalidate it. Because a disruption is a process, the effects of the virus on sanitary, social, economic, business, and political dimensions unfold progressively and over a long period.

A mental model is the set of deep beliefs and values that one constructs over time about oneself and the world. Mental models exist at the individual level; For instance, “I believe that challenging one’s boss leads to anarchy” (actual quote). They also exist at the collective level: for instance, “being predictable and reliable is the key to obtain the trust of our investors”, or Kodak’s “We are the leaders of the photo market”. They also exist at the societal level: for instance, regarding people’s beliefs about gay marriage, or about the role that business should play in society.

In a crisis, our model was predicting that the world would go in direction A, but it turned out to be going in direction B, and we are surprised. This surprise can have more or less serious consequences. Most of the time, the reaction will be to dismiss the surprise. When there is a difference between reality and our beliefs, we try at all costs to maintain the latter by inventing all sorts of reasons to minimize the meaning of surprise; it is a matter of integrity, because our mental models are constitutive of our deep identity: how we see the world is also how we see ourselves, and how we are in the world. With Covid-19, learning to manage our mental models has become critical.

If a surprise shows a very large gap between our belief and reality, it constitutes what organizational theory researcher Karl Weick calls a cosmological episode, i.e. a particularly severe shock that can call into question our very identity: the gap is too great to be denied, and the event is so unexpected and powerful that it cannot be interpreted by our existing mental models, leading to their collapse, and that of our identity at the same time. 

The Covid-19 epidemic has already shaken many of our mental models: the fact, for example, that our supply of essential foodstuffs would be reliable forever, that epidemics and other calamities are reserved for poor countries, or that working from home was impossible in our organization.

Mental models reinforcement in the face of a crisis

Paradoxically, a cosmological episode does not always lead one to question one’s beliefs. It can in some cases, or for some people or some organizations, serve on the contrary to reinforce them, despite or perhaps because of its magnitude. Thus we have seen statements from various personalities or business leaders, all beginning with “The episode of the Covid-19 shows that…” and followed by whatever their belief was about some issue.

A disruption such as the Covid-19 epidemic is upsetting our deepest beliefs. It reshuffles the cards and changes the rules of the game. It makes possible what was impossible, unimaginable, or inconceivable or vice versa. It makes impossible or unacceptable what was common. It closes options and opens new ones. In short, it upsets our mental models and calls for the emergence of new models. A return to normal requires careful work on these models.

The Strategic Imperative: exposing, testing, and adjusting mental models

How can it be done? A simple but powerful approach goes by the acronym of META; it consists of exposing (E), testing (T) and adjusting (A) mental models (M). Exposing consists in asking the question: what are my beliefs (about us, about my clients, my business model, management, etc.) and how does the current situation make some of them obsolete? Once these beliefs have been exposed comes the testing phase, i.e. asking ourselves in which context these beliefs are still useful, and in which contexts they have become useless or even counterproductive. Once these contexts have been identified, current models can be adjusted to create new models that will be effective.

If organizations today do address this issue, they have no chance of bouncing back into the post-Covid era, whatever form this “post” may take. They will settle for a return to normal, which will never be normal, and become obsolete in their way of thinking about the world, which is the primary source of an organization’s decline.

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