Changing Mental Maps

At the University of Michigan, Ross Business School, we have a three-week program for top executives. Many professors make presentations. At the end of the program the participants are invited to review the presentations and present their new plans or “action agendas.” They are free to use any slide used by any of the professors.

In my session I introduce them to basic notions for creating a more positive organization. I start with a very basic but elusive issue. I tell the participants that I am going to share a slide of great value. The first thing on the slide is a quote; “If leaders cannot change individuals’ mental maps, they will not change the destinations people pursue or the paths they take to get there (Black and Gregersen, 2003).”

I ask the participants to explain the notion of a mental map. They usually tell me that people have “maps” in their heads. As people go through life they learn from experience and the experience teaches them to what to expect in various situations. People make assumptions about themselves and about the world they live in. They then behave according to their assumptions or mental maps.

I click a button and a statement from Peter Drucker shows up on the slide. It reads, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

When I ask for the link between the two quotes, the participants again tend to do well. They usually tell me that in organizations some mind maps are shared. These reflect the organizational culture. If a leader cannot change the collective mental map or culture, the leader cannot change the organization.

I complement them on their understanding and then ask them to teach me how they change the mental maps of their people. At this point they usually piece together an explanation of how to manage a change process. It is almost always a strategy based on top-down control and direction giving.

I challenge their top-down strategy. I give numerous examples of how such efforts fail to change mental maps. As the conversation continues, the tone begins to change. They start to open up. The discussion becomes more authentic. Trust goes up and learning accelerates. The group recognizes they are much like the people in my stories of failed change efforts. They are much more oriented to change management than they are to change leadership.

I reiterate the point that most executives tend to spend their time analyzing problems and formulating strategies for change. They announce the changes they expect, and often little happens because “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, their employees’ shared expectations of each other are more powerful in determining their output than any top-down strategic plan.

I often invite the participants to reflect on the most recent change efforts in their own organizations. As they tell their own stories, the evidence grows in support of the fact that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and most executives do not know how to change mental maps.

At this point the participants are eager to learn how to alter mental maps so as to create a more positive culture. I emphasize one key point. The concepts of positive organizing violate the conventional mental map. To be a positive leader one must know how to lead culture change. It is not the same as change management.

A few days later, when the participants present their agendas for change, the slide I showed them is almost always included. Why? No matter where they want to take their organization they realize they must pay great attention to mental maps and how to change them.

Reflection

What is a mental map?

When have I succeeded is helping someone change their mental map?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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