How to build a mental model that works for your unique environment.

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

Before becoming a manager, I had just enough awareness of “management” that, much like being waved down by lost tourist, I could point people in the right general direction.

Looking back, I suppose I understood my managers like I understood a barista — I needed coffee every day, I enjoyed chatting with them in short bursts; I wouldn’t want to stay in the cafe for that long; I’m not sure exactly what they do to look quite so busy, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be them during rush hour. Still, it looked kind of fun…

The first three months of management was an assault on the senses. The rhythm of my day changed, I started playing a lot of Outlook calendar Tetris. There was an explosion in the number of contexts and my time horizons expanded by about six months. I didn’t just become the barista, but I was given the cafe to run as well.

In an effort to learn as quickly as possible I relied on the usual methods of talking to people (“management…what even?!”) and reading stuff from the internet (“OK Google, management…what even?!”). It was at times intense but also exhilarating, like cramming for an open book exam. However, there were downsides to this approach.

Seeking guidance from those more experienced often led to only fleeting moments of enlightenment:

“It’s all about the people.”

“Help the team deliver.”

“Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.”

There is unquestionable value in learning from those who are more advanced or have mastered their craft. But, for those taking their first step on a thousand-mile journey, these pearls of wisdom are sometimes too far ahead on the learning curve to digest: beautiful, impractical, cryptic.

Venture online and the opposite happens: you are subjected to a tsunami of information. I often found myself manically hopping from article to article, collecting 3 tips from here, 11 from there, and before you know it, I had amassed 101 things to do as a new manager and 58 things to avoid.

I often wondered about what I could have done differently during this nascent stage of my career. It did not feel like an altogether wrong approach, but I was missing an element.

Recently I had to take a shot at answering this question, as I was providing advice to someone who had started leading a team. In addition to the usual routes of mentors and management articles, I added, “Draw it out, visualise how your team works and how you fit into that picture. Form a mental modelof leading a team.”

Reflecting on the conversation, I became more confident that I had found the missing element. Back then, I had the aphorisms (“It’s all about the people”), the practical daily tips (“provide feedback in a timely manner”), but lacked a framework to tie everything together.

A mental model is a fancy term for “a way to explain how something works” and you would have encountered plenty: a flow chart models steps in a process; a matrix models different categories formed with two variables; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs models human motivations. Developing a mental model to pass on knowledge will also deepen your own understanding (the benefits of teaching to assist learning is well documented). Special skills are not required here, just start building!

Here’s one of my first drawings, where I took the general gist of “protect your team from noise and set boundaries” to help model what that actually meant when applied to my situation. It helped me differentiate between “noise” and “valuable context”, the types of organizational communications that required translation for team consumption (thereby giving color to “transparency”) and setting boundaries with the team that balanced autonomy and chaos.

Later, I added to the diagram to model delegation and coaching:

I aspire for my team to be able to work with autonomy, where they can deliver, reflect, and improve on how they work without my active participation. This, in turn, would allow me to focus on setting constraints, providing relevant information to make decisions, and collecting data to enhance feedback loops. Working towards this state requires coaching and active participation for some tasks until I am satisfied that I can remove myself as a dependency. Translating this to the mental model above should result in a decrease in the surface area of the blue ring to a sliver at the boundaries, however, this area will also continuously fluctuate because teams are never static. New people come and go, discipline and processes atrophy, and there is a limit to what can be delegated.

My mental models (and yours) will evolve over time. By definition, they represent your current understanding of the world, complete with assumptions and biases. Every day is an opportunity for new information to bolster or challenge your understanding.

As a new manager pinballing from one meeting (or one context) to the next, it is important to fight the temptation to “just survive” the day and make time for quiet reflection. Start building a model of how your team works, and how the work works. The first weeks might yield an answer of only a few sentences but aim to be in a position to visualize the answer by month three. Of course, there are many lenses through which to view a team, but this exercise is about deepening your understanding as opposed to arriving at some perfect answer.

You are creating your own framework to make sense of those do’s and don’ts — all 159 of them.

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