10 Mental Models Every Agile Coach should know
Model-based thinking requires training the mind, most notably developing an ability to stop and think. Personally, looking through the lens of a particular model often led me to a much better understanding of the problems and sometimes even redefining the problem itself. The article presents 10 mental models that I have personally found very useful.
Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head
~ Charlie Munger
Making sense of the world around us is crucial.
How we interpret a particular situation directly impacts our decisions or those we influence, and those decisions often have far-reaching consequences on the outcomes.
As we evolve through our academic and professional careers, we learn several concepts and observe certain situations firsthand. Our current knowledge and especially experiences condition our thinking. They guide our intuition, or what Daniel Kahneman calls — our system 1. Sense-making is a crucial part of understanding and solving a problem, as the Cynefin framework shows us. However, if intuition is all we rely on for this sense-making, our inferences and actions may not always be optimal.
Moving beyond the first reactions is where models come in. Models help articulate a problem or situation and our response more clearly. The inherently complex world is more meaningful with a bit of help from the models, and they can broaden our thinking of the context, the problem, and possible solutions.
The Mental Models
Technically not all of them are mental models, and they are frameworks, laws, theories, thinking tools, or just mental representations. However, they have helped me in my coaching journey as a faithful companion to comprehend and make sense of the world around me. In addition, they guided my responses often with better results than when I acted with first-order thinking.
1. First Principles
First-principles thinking, also called first-principles reasoning, requires breaking down a problem into its fundamental building blocks and essential elements. It asks powerful questions that help get down to the absolute truth, separate facts from assumptions, and construct a view from the ground up.
In one of the interviews, Elon Musk says, “Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.”
First-principles thinking is potent to solve complex problems. In an agile context, I have often broken down a problem statement or situation and tried to see it from the lens of the agile manifesto values and principles. Seeing from that perspective often helps evolve a better understanding and solution rather than force-fitting frameworks or commonly known practices.
2. Fundamental Attribution Error
In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasise situational and environmental explanations for an individual’s observed behaviour while over-emphasising dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behaviour.
This effect is “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”. Essentially to over-attribute behaviours (what they do or say) to personality and under attribute to the situation or context. (Source: Wikipedia)
As a coach, while handling difficult stakeholders who are resistant to change, it is critical to be aware of and avoid this bias. A better understanding and appreciation of the situational factors could give a broader perspective and bring forth ways to transform these stakeholders rather than just cribbing, “they will never be agile.”
3. Cancer Surgery Formula
Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, explains in a talk,
“I’ve had many friends in the sick-business-fix-up-game over a long lifetime. And they practically all use the following formula — I call it the cancer surgery formula: They look at this mess and they figure out if there’s anything sound left that can live on its own if they cut away everything else. And if they find anything sound, they just cut away everything else. Of course, if that doesn’t work, they liquidate the business. But It frequently does work.” (Source: Charlie Munger’s famous talk at USC Business School, 1994)
Organisational transformations often get messy with political pushbacks, practices that don’t work in the context, and many other complexities. Usually, the way out of this mess is for the coaches to take a fresh start by objectively abandoning the things that don’t work. This objectivity is difficult as they are very invested in the approaches and practices they so passionately designed. Yet, dropping them is the only way out. As painful as cancer surgery, we must focus only on the parts that should live and kill others to survive.
4. Maslow’s Hammer
Maslow’s hammer also called the law of the instrument, is a cognitive bias that involves an over-reliance on a familiar tool. As Abraham Maslow said in 1966,
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Coaches who have a limited toolkit of practices often struggle to recommend the most suitable methods for a context. Instead, they try to force-fit the solution to suit their knowledge, e.g., prescribing their agile scaling framework of choice for any and every situation.
5. Max Planck / Chauffeur Test
Again Charlie Munger (my favourite), the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, related a story of Max Planck, who repeatedly went around Germany giving the same lecture after winning his Nobel prize. His chauffeur delivered the address in one of them, and no one noticed the difference. The chauffeur was as convincing as Planck. Charlie further explains in his talk,
“In this world, we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge, the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. And then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They’ve learned the talk. They may have a big head of hair, they may have fine temper in the voice, they’ll make a hell of an impression. But in the end, all they have is chauffeur knowledge…And you are going to have the problem in your life of getting the responsibility into the people with the Planck knowledge and away from the people with the chauffeur knowledge.” (Source: Charlie Munger)
This beautiful advice from Charlie Munger is always at the back of my mind when I build any team. Whether for large product delivery or a large transformation office, we want people with substance and not only concepts they can parrot. One principle that has guided me throughout my coaching career is turning abstract ideas into reality.
Anyone can describe frameworks and laws, but the key differentiator is applying and implementing them in real business situations to help your clients achieve better outcomes.
6. Curse of Knowledge
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that others have the background to understand. Some also refer to this bias as the curse of expertise. (Source: Wikipedia)
When we explain certain concepts to our clients or discuss those with other coaches, it is important not to assume that others have the same background as us. Especially in agile coaching conversations, interpretation of a particular concept or practise often varies, so establishing common ground is essential.
7. Paradox of Choice
The paradox of choice is an observation that having too many options often causes people to be stressed and delays decision making rather than making them happy with the choices. Barry Schwartz wrote about the adverse consequences of having too many options in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.
Schwartz further said that an overabundance of options could lead to anxiety, indecision, paralysis, and dissatisfaction. (Source: The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz)
Coaching discussions often involve presenting our clients with options and several courses of action that they could potentially take. While we don’t want to be deciding for them, we have to ensure to not present the options in such a way as to cause decision paralysis.
8. Principal-Agent Problem
The principal-agent problem occurs when one person or entity (the “agent”) can make decisions and take actions on behalf of, or that impact, another person or entity: the “principal.” This dilemma is also known as the agency dilemma or the agency problem. This dilemma exists when agents are motivated to act in their own best interests, contrary to those of their principals. (Source: Wikipedia)
I have often observed this in large transformation programs where a central team guides an organization-wide transformation in collaboration with change agents from the respective business units/departments. These change agents often are part-timers and have other jobs. Their priorities continue to be from their departmental perspectives. We must create sufficient incentive and alignment so that the change agent acts in the best interests of the overall transformation and not by narrow departmental interests.
9. McNamara Fallacy
The McNamara fallacy (also known as the quantitative fallacy, named for Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, involves making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others. The reason given is often that these other observations cannot be proven. Daniel Yankelovich states in “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business” (1972),
“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Measurements are a crucial element in the decision-making process. However, relying solely on quantitative metrics ignoring others is often detrimental. The obsession with quantifying everything like customer satisfaction, business value, and other parameters that are more qualitative than quantitative often lead to undesirable outcomes. While quantifying a parameter and looking objectively at data is in itself not a problem, relying solely on such measures is.
10. Nash Equilibrium
Nash equilibrium is a concept within game theory where the optimal outcome of a game is where there is no incentive to deviate from the initial strategy. More specifically, the Nash equilibrium is a concept where the optimal outcome of a game is one where no player has an incentive to deviate from their chosen strategy after considering an opponent’s choice. Overall, an individual can receive no incremental benefit from changing actions, assuming other players remain constant in their strategies. (Source: Investopedia)
The conflict between a coach trying to effect change and middle management with no sufficient incentive for change is often a case of Nash equilibrium. The middle management can continue to ignore the coach’s attempts to transform unless a change forces the management out of their indifference to act. As an agile coach you must be acutely aware and find strategies to break out of these equilibriums.
Model-based thinking requires training the mind, most notably developing an ability to stop and think. Personally, looking through the lens of a particular model often led me to a much better understanding of the problems and sometimes even redefining the problem itself.