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Of mental models and doorknobs

by Andrew Taylor

In the MBA major in Arts Administration that I direct, we spend a lot of time in our early classes talking about systems and mental models...probably more time than my students would like. But after working here for 16 years, and trying to integrate business theory with real-world management practice in the arts, I can't get around the recurring truth: You can't challenge and inform the assumptions that define your work until you realize that you have them, and accept that they can be challenged.

This is my primary complaint against practitioners who rail against theory and advocate learning exclusively by working 'in the trenches'. It's not that I disagree -- learning by doing is extraordinarily powerful and important and essential. But even the most practical work is dripping with theory, saturated in it, swimming in it. Since Goethe said it rather well, I'll quote him here (because nothing advances a theory/practice argument better than quoting Goethe):

"Every attentive glance into the world is already fraught with theory."

So, in my first class, we talk about doorknobs (spoiler alert for my incoming MBAs). You have a theory for how a doorknob works, and how you need to interact with it to get what you want (to swing the door open, usually). You actually have multiple theories or models about how doorknobs work, since there are so many different kinds. You've built those models over the years through direct experience. And you're so good at this modeling, you've forgotten that you're doing it at all. Your 'theory of doorknobs' is continually reinforced as valid and useful, and on you go into the world opening and closing doors with abandon.

But there are (at least) two circumstances in which you begin to realize you even have a 'theory of doorknobs':

  • When you encounter a door-latching/-unlatching device that doesn't look like or behave like what you've come to expect (you expect a clockwise turn, but it requires a counter-clockwise turn, for example...or you encounter a radical redesign in some funky new building).
  • When you need to describe or explain the process without being able to demonstrate it directly.

The first circumstance often passes almost unnoticed, as your modeling skills are extraordinary. It can feel like that moment when you're walking down steps, and the last step is a bit deeper than you expected. You're suddenly aware of your body, you might feel a flush of panic in that final millisecond. You might give a dirty or curious glance to the object that surprised your expectations. But then you adapt and move on.

The second circumstance is less frequent, but perhaps more powerful. My example is when you have a guest staying with you for a few days, and they call you at the office unable to get into your house. Suddenly, a rather elaborate mental model unfolds over the phone about pulling the key out ever so slightly, or jiggling it, or pushing down on the door as you turn the knob, or pulling the door toward you before turning the key, and on and on. All the things you would do without thinking were you there yourself (or, what you believe to be without thinking...which is actually implicit thinking).

The same is true for our work in the arts -- selection, production, marketing, people management, development, education, governance, and so on -- all these things built on implicit models of how the world works. Even the categories in that list assume boundaries and roles that may or may not be useful to the task at hand.

To me, this is the essential place to begin almost any learning journey, MBA or otherwise: To recognize that you have constructions in your head, many of which are perfectly useful and appropriate, many of which are desperately broken, but all of which can be revised and rebuilt when considered in the open air among smart and capable people who have accepted the same truths.

The moments when I see my students or colleagues discovering that, and the moments I suddenly recall it myself, are among the most rewarding of my teaching career.