Virtual Learning Resource Centre

The power of impossible thinking: Transform the business of your life and the life of your business

Book cover

by Yoram (Jerry) Wind and Colin Crook with Robert Gunther, Wharton School Publishing, 2006.


Mental models shape the opportunities and threats we see in our lives. If you want to change your world, you have to change your way of thinking so you can see the new possibilities. By understanding the power of mental models and the process of changing them, you can think impossible thoughts.

(Summarised by Kevin Barham in September 2006)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

How we make sense of the world

Researchers asked people in an experiment to count the number of times ball players with white shirts threw a ball back and forth in a video. Most subjects were so intent on watching white shirts that they didn’t notice a gorilla wander across the screen and beat his chest. What are the "gorillas", ask the authors, who are crossing your own field of vision but you are so busy you fail to see them?

Jerry Wind and Colin Crook are professors at the Wharton business school. They draw on new understanding of how the human brain works to show how "mental models" shape the opportunities and threats we see in our lives. Working on change initiatives with global organisations has convinced them that, if you want to change your world, you have to change your way of thinking so you can see the possibilities. By understanding the power of mental models and the process of changing them, you can think "impossible thoughts" in both your business and personal lives.

Mental models (or "mindsets") are the brain processes we use to make sense of our world. This sense making, as the authors explain it, is determined more by our internal mind than by the external world. Our mental models are often so deep, they are invisible, but they stand between us and reality, distorting our perceptions. Developing better mental models will therefore produce better decisions.

In any area of your life where you need to change and transform yourself, your organisation or other people, mental models play a central role. If, for example, you are stuck in your career, if your organisation is having growth problems, if you are trying unsuccessfully to lose weight or give up smoking, or if you are having difficulties in relationships, your mental models and those of other people could be the cause.

We are often unaware of what our models are and how they shape what we see and do. We rarely question our models of the world until we are forced to. So changing the world begins with changing our own thinking. Even if we are willing to change our thinking, we also need to recognise the walls that keep us in the old models, the confining influence of both the infrastructure and processes of our lives and of the models of those around us.

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The power and limits of mental models

We first have to recognise the power and limits of mental models. The brain is highly complex and is able to make sense of the millions of sensory signals it receives from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin. But, according to the authors, the sense we make of external things is based only to a small extent on what we see outside; it depends to a much greater extent on the patterns located in our minds. In other words, the brain chooses to ignore some of the external world. It takes in information about the world through the senses and then discards most of it to create a parallel world of its own in our minds. In effect, each brain creates its own world which is internally consistent and complete.

As a child grows, the internal worlds in its mind become richer, the external world recedes, and the balance tips from the outside to the inside. The brain’s own models replace the signals from external sources. When the brain meets a new experience, it calls up a mental model that seems to be its nearest equivalent. We eventually lose all awareness that these models are internal illusions. We accept them as external reality and act on them as if they were. If they are good models, they permit the mind to handle reality. But, if the world changes significantly, our model may be irrelevant to the new situation.

A number of factors shape our mental models, including education, training, the influence of others, rewards and incentives, and personal experience (particularly our successes and failures).

In a changing environment, we can either transform ourselves or be transformed. To transform our lives, though, we have to transform our minds first. Our mental models determine what we are able to see and do. We need to identify the blind spots of our models and seek out perspectives and experiences that challenge or change our current models.

Our models are so powerful, invisible and persistent that when the old models no longer explain what is happening, we keep trying to make our experiences fit into them. An example is the Digital Equipment Corporation whose attachment to the mental model that produced the once successful minicomputer blindsided it to the rise of the personal computer. The story of the intellectual property battles in the music business when the music companies tried to stop the rise of the online music industry also shows how the mindset of the old order tries to hold back the new.

The Palm Pilot demonstrates how the power of new models can lead to success. On the other hand, the difficulty of changing models, particularly if their time has not come, is illustrated by the Segway people mover, an innovative scooter that was intended to revolutionise transport but which never caught on.

Both in personal life and in business, our models constrain our actions. The more we understand the role of mental models, the better we can examine the strengths of our models and their limitations. We need to sustain the models that allow us to act in the world and get rid of those that constrain us unnecessarily, just as athlete Roger Bannister in 1954 overcame the mindset that had hitherto prevented the 4-minute mile.

If we understand that most of what we see and think comes from inside rather than from external stimuli, we can then start to overcome what previously seemed insurmountable obstacles and "run the miracle mile".

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Keeping your models relevant

The authors point to two potential mistakes made by people when making decisions about changing mental models, personal or business-related. The first is to stay with the wrong model and get left behind. The second is to back the wrong model, to abandon a perfectly adequate one before it is exhausted, and to change to a model that turns out to be much worse.

There are psychological forces that keep people committed to a course of action long after they should rationally give up. The "sunk cost fallacy", for example, makes managers with deep investments in a project sustain it when they should pull out. The Vietnam war was another example of the sunk cost problem.

But how do you know when to change your mental models? If you encounter a serious crisis or failure of the old model, it’s clear you need to find a new one. But it can be dangerous to wait that long. You have to anticipate the crisis by staying alert to "just-noticeable differences", small variations that don’t fit the model and which signal that the old model is not working – or that the potential for a new model is emerging. To avoid "cognitive lock", becoming fixed in a single view of the world, you need to create an early warning system, to look at the world through the eyes of customers, and watch out for fads. You also need to know yourself – inexperienced people may jump to the new too quickly while more experienced people may stay too long with the old.

Beware too, the authors warn, of the "mid-life crisis" which can be experienced by both individuals and organisations and which often leads them to make a dramatic change, sometimes with negative results. Use low-cost, low-risk ways to test and experiment with new models before adopting them fully.

Paradigm shifts (which the authors describe as shifts to new mental models for viewing the world) are not necessarily absolute and irreversible, as is sometimes suggested. New paradigms and the old can exist side-by-side. Scientists in the Einsteinian age of physics still use Newtonian ideas where they find them useful.

Some advocates of change preach total conversion to a new way of doing things. The authors believe in a more pragmatic approach. We need to recognise our mental models for what they are so we can tell when they help us and when they let us down. We need to understand the old order and explore new orders that might work better or be better suited to a new environment. Revolution may be appealing but might contain a danger as great as staying with the status quo.

No mental model is ever really destroyed; rather, we make a choice to turn away from it to a new model. If we occasionally look back at it, we may find it contains more value than we thought. We can then use different models to gain new perspectives on our challenges.

We can also develop new models for thinking about future challenges. The view that hydrogen will replace petroleum as the main source of power is an example. Adopting this view wholeheartedly might lead companies to commit serious strategic errors. Companies that ignore it may be left behind. The authors suggest that by looking at the world through both the hydrogen mindset and the old one of a world based on fossil fuels, managers can select the one that makes most sense at any point as the world changes.

You have to decide whether to add a model to your "active portfolio" or abandon it. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each model. Don’t keep too many tools in your active tool box (your "conscious inventory") but don’t throw away the old ones – "archive" them in case you need them later.

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Cultivating a new way of seeing

We ignore much of the world around us, we see without seeing. We therefore need to cultivate the ability to see things differently, remove our blinkers and come up with new perspectives. The authors suggest a range of ideas for doing this:

  • Listen to the radical people in your world and the wisdom and opportunities in their ideas. What do they see that you don’t and what can you learn from them?
  • Make "journeys of discovery" into new markets and emerging segments of consumers. Cross the boundaries of your education or your discipline to look at things from the perspectives of other parts of your organisation or other disciplines.
  • Question the routines that might otherwise take on a life of their own and prevent interrogation. What are you taking for granted? Deliberately break your routine to make yourself view things differently.
  • Just as pilots have to practice "flying upside down" to prepare them for emergencies, think how you can prepare yourself for events outside your normal experience.
  • Imagine your current model was completely destroyed; what would you create in its place?
  • Engage in scenario planning to envision alternative futures.
  • Play the devil’s advocate and take a contrary position.

New models often emerge from a crisis but if you keep an open mind and actively explore other models, you may recognise the need to change and respond before the crisis occurs.

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Sifting for sense from complexity

The amount of knowledge doubles every ten years. The quantity of information has not only increased, it flows in different ways via 24-hour news, the Internet, and other media – it threatens to overwhelm us. We need to become better at "sifting for sense from the streams of complexity", at "sifting the gold nuggets from torrents of knowledge".

The key is to cultivate a process of "zooming in and out". We zoom in to examine interesting details and find "disconfirming" information that makes us challenge our existing models. We zoom out to look at the context, the big picture, and gain perspective to create a coherent image.

Approaches that assist zooming in include engaging in rigorous analysis (testing assumptions and developing hypotheses) and having a framework for categorising and prioritising new information. When zooming out, you need to create space for reflection to avoid drowning in information.

The authors cite the practice of "pair programming" in the software industry as an excellent way of zooming in and out simultaneously. Two computer programmers work together on the same computer to create software – one programmer concentrates on the big picture while the other focuses on the details of developing the code. This ensures that an otherwise well-written programme does not miss the bigger picture or lose sight of user needs.

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Mental R&D

Before your old mental models show signs of failing you need to experiment with new models. The authors call this "R&D of the Mind". An R&D approach regards the external world as not totally understood and constantly changing, as an ongoing experiment. "Life is a laboratory." We should treat our mental models as hypotheses. This involves seeing them for what they are (they are models, not reality), and setting out to either confirm the value of our existing models or postulating new ones and carrying out experiments to validate them.

We need to cultivate a process of "continuous adaptive experimentation". As we complete each experiment, the hypothesis is adjusted and the next experiment begins. We need to avoid a short-term bias and think through the long-term implications of different models. We must also be willing to detach ourselves from the results and take a hard look at the data, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Conducting post mortems and using simulations help to promote ongoing experimentation. Deliberately making time and space for experimentation and thinking and making a conscious commitment to experimentation can also help. Share your challenges and results with others.

If you don’t do this conscious work, you may face a catastrophic failure of your old model or embrace a new model that leads to catastrophe. With practice, the process of experimenting with new models will become second nature.

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Transform your world

To transform your world, the authors say, you have to "dismantle the old order" and find common ground to bridge what they call "adaptive disconnects".

We are defined by our mental models, so giving them up involves giving up part of ourselves. We will be surrounded by a network of people (friends, colleagues, family, etc) with similar views of the world who reinforce the models. We may also have built a considerable infrastructure that supports the existing models. Changing models involves either sudden revolution (e.g. Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus) or evolution (e.g. a corporate training programme). Whatever route take, we have to give something up.

Taking a systems approach to implementing change means the "conversion" will be less traumatic. We need to understand how the expectations of others or the infrastructure tie us to a particular model.

  • Begin with small changes that affect perceptions and actions in the broader system. One example is the zero-tolerance policy on petty crime introduced by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York and which eventually had a big impact in transforming NY’s Police Department.
  • Analyse the "hard numbers" that will erode the old models and build support for the new (just as Giuliani developed new, more relevant measures for crime busting and held people accountable for results).
  • To drive change across the organisation, make the information visible. Align incentives, start with a "dramatic and symbolic" destruction of the old model, and build an environment of trust.

Some cultures, corporate and personal, cannot tolerate discussions about change and let things get so far out of line with reality they breakdown or revolution occurs. Those that can tolerate a process of adjustment can adapt both their thinking and their worlds.

Personal resistance to change can be a big obstacle to the introduction of new models. "Adaptive disconnects" occur when an individual or group of individuals changes mental models at a faster or slower rate than others. One person or group is starting to embrace a new model while others stay with the old one. The divide may grow until the two sides can no longer communicate because they see the world through very different lenses. Such disconnects (such as those between estranged couples or between the developing and developed worlds) impede the progress of the new model and must be bridged.

We have to recognise our own adaptive disconnects, perhaps by paying attention to what other people are saying about us. We have to bridge the gaps of others by creating a dialogue, demonstrating the superior benefits versus the cost or risk of the new approach, and using "boundary spanners" – people with a foot in both worlds who can serve as guides and translators and help build a shared view of things. An example of the latter are those commentators who make complex scientific subjects accessible to the masses and give them a new view of the world.

Progress depends, not only on "unreasonable" people seeing the world differently, but also on their ability to convince others of the reasonableness and usefulness of their views. They do it by bridging adaptive disconnects and bringing separate worlds together.

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Acting quickly and effectively

There are two basic approaches to making a decision: analytical and intuitive. The former takes time which we may not always have. If we need to make quick decisions we need to rely more heavily on intuition. Intuition differs from instinct or insight in that it is usually based on deep experience and wisdom in a particular area – like that of the fire-fighter who made a sudden decision to pull his men out of a burning building shortly before the floor collapsed. He couldn’t explain why he made the decision, he just sensed something was wrong. [The same example is used by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, also reviewed on the VLRC, in which he explores how snap judgements can sometimes be more effective than slow, cautious decision-making processes.]

The authors give a range of advice on how to develop your intuitive skills. Firstly and importantly, practice intuition only in an area where you have significant knowledge. Learn to trust your "gut". [Malcolm Gladwell in Blink has a lot to say about trusting your intuition.] Tap into a broader community of knowledge. Periodically test your intuition to see if it has led you in the right direction. Maintain a healthy curiosity and external focus to keep your intuition relevant in a changing environment. Cultivate the ability to "let go" by stepping back from analytical processes, by meditating or by taking time out for reflection. The authors say that, if you can learn to access your intuition, it can help you creatively rethink what you are seeing, allowing you to identify new patterns and arrive at new conclusions that can change the way you make sense of the world.

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Challenge your own thinking

The authors explore ways of thinking about and challenging our mental models related to various personal, business and social concerns. For example, they suggest that if you are having problems changing health-related behaviours (such as losing weight or giving up smoking), it may not merely be "weak will" but the strength of your current models, and which you need to change. On the social front, they worry about the US war on terrorism and its potential threat to civil liberties. They call for more debate between the proponents of individual freedom and those focusing on dealing with terrorism, and for lessons to be learned from the experience of other countries in fighting terrorism so that a rich "mental model repertoire" for promoting both security and privacy might be built.

The major business issue explored by the authors is e-business. They believe our ability to take advantage of the technology depends on our business models which, in turn, depend on our mental models. An important challenge is to bridge the adaptive disconnect between the technology leaders who favour adopting e-business approaches (the "believers") and the business leaders (who are sometimes the "non-believers") in our organisations so that mutual learning about the implications of the new technologies can take place.

The authors suggest that understanding our mental models will also improve approaches to strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, start-ups and improving corporate performance.

Thinking back over recent book reviews posted on the VLRC, we might suggest some other business-related areas where thinking about the mental models that constrain us could help us move forward. For example:

  • Changing attitudes to customers. Some marketing experts are calling for companies to treat customers as assets, focus on their lifetime value and regard expenditures related to acquiring and keeping them as investments, not expenses. (See Managing Customers as Investments by Sunil Gupta and Donald Lehmann; Return on Customer by Don Pepper and Martha Rogers; and Once a Customer, Always a Customer by Chris Daffy.)
  • Developing new organisational forms. How, for example, to turn traditional command-and-control organisations into virtual, networked organisations competing globally through knowledge-sharing. (Building a Knowledge-Driven Organisation by Robert Buckman.)
  • Preventing corporate catastrophes. Mistakes that can be fatal to a corporation occur because people refuse to believe the evidence before their eyes (Enron, the Titanic, etc). It is suggested that every company requires a "questioning culture" – which presumably requires managers at all levels to understand and challenge their mental models. (Will Your Next Mistake Be Fatal? By Robert Mittelstaedt.)
  • Addressing world poverty. Some leading business academics have suggested that there is great potential for multinational firms to contribute to solving world poverty by addressing the needs of the world’s poor in an environmentally sustainable and economically profitable way (The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Prahalad and Capitalism at the Crossroads by Stuart Hart). It is clear that, if many more MNCs are to engage with the people at the base of the economic pyramid (the "BOP"), their managers will need to make big shifts in their mindset.

To go back to Impossible Thinking itself, the authors point out that mental models affect every aspect of our lives and that every issue we meet in life provides opportunities for exploring the impact of mental models and developing new ones. When we read stories in the newspapers, or face up to personal challenges or make decisions at work, we should ask ourselves what mental models are shaping or limiting the way we look at the situation. What models do others hold and what other models are possible? How might we experiment with new models? What is our intuition telling us about the situation? Such continuous practice will help to improve our capacity for impossible thinking.

This review can hardly do justice to the wealth of stories and examples the authors use to illustrate their ideas. Although they draw on the findings of neuroscientific research, they don’t allow it to get in the way of a very readable narrative. They conclude each chapter with practical questions that help the reader to apply the principles in both their personal and business lives. They also give us three case studies of "impossible thinkers" to illustrate the power of new mental models – these include Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Oprah Winfrey (of talk show fame), and Andy Grove (Intel). And for readers who are interested, an appendix describes the neuroscience behind each chapter.

In addition to Malcom Gladwell’s Blink, other useful supplementary reading would be Nancy Kline’s book Time to Think. This proposes the development of a "Thinking Environment" either at work or at home in which an individual can think aloud about company, personal or family issues with others whose role is to listen actively, challenge the individual’s ideas, and surface the limiting assumptions that are holding him or her back.

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