Mental Models: Searching for Allies
Contract employees have an unusual work life. They travel from job to job and place to place. Each new assignment offers new challenges ranging from major ones, like understanding the work itself, to the trivial, like finding the way through a new building. But no challenge is more difficult than identifying and developing relationships with allies who can help ensure success in the assignment.
A colleague who thrives as a contractor once offered a bit of advice that seemed strange: as soon as he starts a new assignment, he seeks out the “hardware guy or gal” within the information technology (IT) group and treats that person to lunch. In his experience, no one pays much attention to the IT hardware team, and certainly very few people appreciate just how valuable a relationship with the hardware team can be. With one simple and easy gesture, our colleague secures access to the best equipment, key insider knowledge about who else in the IT department is skilled and able to help in other areas, and a host of other advantages.
The real lesson? You never know where allies will be found. Seeking out potential allies requires a focused effort to identify them and cultivate relationships with them. Of course, developing new acquaintances under the thinly veiled guise of a mutually beneficial relationship while focusing exclusively on what someone can do for you is a poor approach that’s likely to fail. Truly exploring how you can help someone and what you have in common and treating him or her with respect is the more rewarding and sound approach.
Top performers like our colleague know this intuitively. In our interviews, we are always struck by how much credit top performers immediately give to others who help them along the path of success.
Questions to ponder:
- What allies have you found in unlikely places? Are you being intentional about cultivating sincere and mutually beneficial relationships?
Mental Models: Keeping the End in Mind
In mountain biking, every rider quickly learns an important lesson: the bike will go where the eyes are looking. If you look at a rock, you will likely hit the rock—even if you are trying to avoid it. If you look at the smooth space next to the rock, your wheels will usually roll safely through that space.
The same is true of performance: where you focus is where you will usually go. Top performers innately understand and practice this concept. They know where they want to end up, and they keep their focus on that end goal.
In practice that means top performers start with the strategic and then deal with the tactical. The strategic is the end goal: where they want to end up, what they want to achieve, what good looks like. Then, as they navigate their way through the various twists and turns of daily work, they have a sound basis for making tactical decisions.
This principle is manifested in the difference between the way top and average performers in business treat the everyday meetings and phone calls required to execute their business strategy. Average performers often view each contact as an end in itself; they try to “win” each of those encounters. In contrast, top performers focus on the longer-term intent expressed in their business strategy, their mental model of success, and they execute each encounter in a way that serves to move them closer to that strategic goal. If the specific objective of the call is not met, top performers seek to learn from the interaction and adjust their plan. If that requires taking a step backward or sideways rather than forward, so be it. They never lose focus.
Questions to ponder:
- Where is your focus? Are you looking at the rock or the path?
Mental Model: Relational Bank Accounts
This is the second article in our miniseries on some of the nuances of the mental models held by top performers. In our first article, we talked about how the same hurdle can be seen either as a speed bump or a major barrier. Top performers, of course, see hurdles as mere speed bumps that barely hinder their progress. In this article, we’ll discuss the notion of relational bank accounts.
Stephen Covey introduced the metaphor of an emotional bank account in his seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When you need to withdraw money from a bank, you must have first deposited the money. Obvious, right? That same inescapable logic also extends to relationships. If you want to build trusting relationships that may occasionally require withdrawals, you must first make some deposits. Top performers innately recognize this truth and proactively embrace this concept in their daily work by making deposits in the accounts of their various relationships immediately, well in advance of and irrespective of any future and yet unidentified needs on their part.
When the time for withdrawals comes, top performers have built the trust required to ask for an introduction or advice or even something as simple as a return call. They are acutely aware, however, that trying to make a withdrawal without first filling their relationship account with deposits puts a strain on any relationship.
In a straightforward example, a top performing sales professional we recently interviewed told us how she would arrive at a potential new client’s and immediately try to identify issues she and her company could help resolve. She didn’t wait to be asked, and she didn’t ask to be compensated in any way. She was simply making deposits into a relational account. Whether she ever would need to make any withdrawals was not part of her thinking process. But she knew the deposits were there if she ever needed to ask for help.
Question to ponder:
- How is your relational account balance with the people in your network?
Mental Models: Barriers
You’ve probably heard the old saying that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. While that may be true when it comes to travels, it’s especially true when it comes to the mental model of top performers.
Too often people focus on barriers and decide that fighting through the barrier to get things done is just too hard. Barriers make performance an ordeal. They make everything more difficult and, in many cases, people are stopped altogether.
Top performers, however, view barriers as mere speed bumps to be overcome—sometimes quickly—sometimes over time. Once over the speed bump, top performers are free to continue their relentless pursuit of excellence. Barriers are just part of the adventure. Or, in the words of another pithy saying “the best views come after the steepest climbs.” Top performers know that and keep their focus on the view at the end of the climb.
What kind of barriers fit this description? In a recent project involving senior executives, average performers often talked about the complex matrix organization as a significant barrier to their being able to accomplish their goals. The matrix was too complicated, required too much time to understand and navigate, and left communications channels too confused.
Meanwhile, the top performing executives talked about the same matrix in very different terms. To them, the matrix was a key to how they got things done. They welcomed the matrix because it offered so many avenues to build relationships, enlist help, and accomplish their goals.
To one group, a barrier is an ordeal; to the top performers, it’s simply part of the path on their adventure.
Question to ponder:
- How do you and your team see obstacles, as barriers or as speed bumps that are part of the adventure?
You Can’t Unsee This
We recently completed a client presentation on the importance of top performers and how their view of their work provides valuable data for management in the creation of procedures, training, organizational design, and other important elements in a high-performing culture.
At a casual lunch afterward, we were asked how we got started.
We immediately began sharing stories about early clients and some of our first investigations of top performers. This was followed quickly by some unintentional chest thumping about significant successes with other clients.
Later, on the drive home from the airport after a two-hour plane ride, it dawned on us: we both trace our starts in this rewarding field to the guidance and mentoring provided by Dr. Paul Elliott, who, in the late eighties and early nineties, was deeply involved with the concept of top performance and the importance of accomplishments or outcomes.
Nothing of significance seems to come easy. Though it seemed to make common sense that we could learn from those whose performance stands out from their peers, it took several months and many attempts by Paul for the significance of outcomes to sink in. The resultant perspective has forever changed our views on performance inside and outside the workplace. The significance of this shift in perspective is best summed up by another of Paul’s pupils who said, “Once you get it, you can’t unsee it.”
Should he be asked, Paul would likely credit his own “conversion” to mentoring by Dr. Joe Harless, creator of Accomplishment Based Curriculum Design. And before his death, Joe, in turn, credited his insights to his direct work with psychologist Thomas Gilbert, author of Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, who is considered by most to be the father of human performance technology (HPT), and the better known B. F. Skinner, founder of what is called radical behaviorism.
As you can see, we are privileged to be able to stand on the shoulders of a long line of studied individuals who make it possible for us to see farther than we thought possible. We most certainly and simply say thank you to all—and mostly to Paul—for now that we have seen it, it’s impossible unsee it.
Question to Ponder:
- Can you see it?
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.
Top Performer Perspective: Technically Competent
This particular top performer perspective is somewhat murkier than many of the others. It’s murky not because we don’t recognize and value it, but because it is so dependent upon the context of the role of the top performer.
We’re reminded of a presentation given by a senior executive some years ago. He talked about how, in his role, he was expected to be fluent in corporate finance, law, mergers and acquisitions, human resources, and a few other fields. What he said was a bit surprising but has been borne out by top performers in many roles. He said he knows enough about each field to know when to call someone who knows more. He also told us that the point at which he called in someone else varied from field to field but that there was no field in which he never needed help.
Too many times, we overemphasize the acquisition of expertise above all else. But perhaps a deeper principle applies. For any given role in any given field, an appropriate level of competence should be the target. Certainly a lawyer should know the law. But ask a criminal attorney about tax law and the best you should hope for is a good referral. Similarly, ask an engineer about structural integrity and, if the engineer is a mechanical engineer with a specialization in structures who is current on the earthquake building codes in California, then—well, you get the picture.
We should strive not to maximize but to optimize our technical expertise. In other words, we should seek to be technically competent.
Question to ponder:
- Do you strive for ultimate expertise or demonstrated competence?
Top Performer Perspective: Storytelling
In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the Heath brothers tell about an experiment Chip Heath conducts at Stanford University.
Chip breaks his class into small teams, gives each team a bunch of statistics about inner-city crime and asks them to develop and present a set of recommendations for how to reduce inner-city crime. Each team does its work, prepares its message and delivers its pitch to the other teams. The team members grade each other’s presentation, which ensures that everyone actually pays attention to all the pitches.
Ten minutes after the presentations, Heath unexpectedly asks the students to take out a sheet of paper and write down all the key points they remember from the presentations. After only ten minutes, only 5 percent of his students remember any individual statistics, but 63 percent of the students remember the stories that were told by each of the teams.
We are a storytelling people and yet we spend our careers trying to eliminate stories and turn them into bullet points. Three bullet points per slide with three subbullets, please. Oh please!
One of the best ways we elicit information from top performers is by asking them to tell us a story: a story about a client with whom they built a relationship or a problem they overcame or other ways they think about and produce their excellent results. Interestingly, top performers are all adept at telling us their stories. Average performers struggle to relay what they do and the way they spend their time into the meaningful context of a story.
We ask ourselves, do storytellers make the best performers? Or do the best performers become good storytellers? Either way, we are confident that the ability to convey their work in a meaningful story is a key marker of top performers, and it is a skill that can be nurtured and improved upon by each of us.
Question to ponder:
- Does your culture value and reward stories or bullet points?
Top Performer Perspective: Being Resolute
The best views come after the toughest climbs. Anyone who has spent much time outdoors appreciates the truth of that adage. But when it comes to our work lives, we expect things to be easy—for the rough spots to be smoothed out and the barriers removed from our assigned path. Unfortunately, that’s not the way things usually work.
The barriers persist and performers get frustrated, often to the point of not getting things done. Not so with top performers. One of the common perspectives we’ve observed in top performers across all types of roles is that they are resolute.
Top performers don’t let things stand in the way. Perhaps that’s a result of their having already decided on the few priorities (the critical outcomes) that really matter, and so they know those goals have to be met for them to be successful. Or perhaps being resolute in their pursuits is just something top performers all have in common. Whatever the reason, we’ve come to realize the importance of this trait in achieving top performance.
Of course, leaders in organizations take on the responsibility of eliminating or reducing barriers. One great way to do that is to observe how top performers get through or around the barriers and then study that approach to identify ways to eliminate the barriers. All performers will benefit from improvements that smooth the way to excellence.
Question to ponder:
- Does your organization appreciate and reward the resolute?
Top Performer Perspective: Ask Why Not?
Robert Kennedy, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, said: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Top performers share Kennedy and Shaw’s perspective. They have mastered the art of seeking the possible rather than focusing on the easily attainable. That perspective is one of the key differences that sets top performers apart. Good performers set their sights on the visible horizon; top performers see farther and reach higher—and they usually achieve much loftier goals.
Asking why not? is a hallmark of top performers. This one simple question drives them to go after the big hairy audacious goal while also providing the impetus behind numerous small innovations that drive daily efficiency and a cycle of continuous improvement. This perspective shows up in practically everything top performers say and do: the words they use to express their goals, the way they describe their tasks, and, most importantly, the measures they use to define their success.
Why not change your horizon? Why not set goals and associated measures that stretch your thinking—that turn even the most mundane tasks or roles into personal challenges that toss the visible horizon aside and ask, as Shaw and Kennedy did, “Why not?”? In our work with top performers, we find that this mindset lies behind many of the outcomes that top performers produce.
Question to ponder:
- When was the last time you or your organization asked why not?