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Mental Models

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We speak often about the notion of a mental model. But what, exactly, is a mental model?

Wikipedia defines a mental model as “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.”

We can add to the definition from the work of Jens Rasmussen concerning human performance in the workplace. In his description of mental models, Rasmussen states that

meaningful interaction with an environment depends upon the existence of a set of invariant constraints in the relationships among events in the environment and between human actions and their effects. The implications of the foregoing discussion is that purposive human behavior must be based on an internal representation of these constraints.1

As they apply to the workplace, those definitions are good places to start, but we’d make some changes. We are very particular about whose thought processes we consider. We focus on the thought processes of proven performers who exhibit top performance in the workplace. In our experience, top and average performers hold vastly different mental models of the work to be accomplished. In Wikipedia’s terms, their thought processes are different. As a result, top and average performers view their real world differently and obtain different results from their efforts in that real world.

As previously mentioned, we differ from Wikipedia because we concentrate our studies on the workplace. This is a more narrow focus of what Wikipedia calls the real world. We focus on how things work in the work arena, although many of the same principles apply to other areas of endeavor.

So here’s our slightly modified definition of mental model: an explanation of a top performer’s purposeful thought process about how things work or how top performers work to accomplish meaningful results in their work environment.

In the next several blog posts, we’ll explore some common aspects we’ve observed about the mental model of top performers.


Questions to ponder:

  • What is your mental model of how you accomplish work in your environment? Is your mental model useful in achieving high levels of success in the work you do?


1 Jens Rasmussen, “Skills, Rules, and Knowledge; Signals, Signs and Symbols, and Other Distinctions in Human Performance Models,” IEEE Transactional Systems, Man, and Cybernetics SMC-13, no. 3 (May 1983), doi: 10.1109/TSMC.1983.6313160.

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