Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Failing at mental modelling

Once in a while something happens in the normal course of events which in unprecedented. Iain M Banks used the term 'outside context problem' (OCP) to describe it in his novel Excession. One of the greatest challenges for any campaign or organisation is to find ways to smoothly transition with minimum disruption to the post OCP world.

To take an example from a political campaign, Mitt Romney and his infamous 47 percent comment. To have been on his campaign that day was to watch your candidate dismiss almost half of all voters, not just as a candidate, but to implicitly deny them representation if you become president.

The campaign reacted slowly, and relatively ineffectively, waiting a significant amount of time to hold a press conference, then doubling down on the comments. It hurt Romney badly and it wasn't until the first presidential debate he regained anything that looked like momentum.

So where did the issue occur? I'd argue that one of the Romney campaign's characteristics is its relative inflexibility. Going back over time it's remarkable how little Romney message has evolved, even in the face of media criticism that some of his key attack lines aren't based in fact.

Being inflexible in good times isn't a disaster, although it does speak to a lack of ability to learn. A good strategy allows for flexibility to the environment. And there lies the rub.

Organisations which fail to adjust to the environment whither and die. We've seen it happen time and time again, Blockbuster, Dell, Microsoft and Yahoo to name just a few. I'd argue that Apple are on the cusp of this right now, with innovations less frequent and less impressive, surrendering territory to companies like Google.

The issue is, to me at least, institutions which are unable to adapt to a shifting environment. Closed mental models of the world that are faulty from the outset put organisations in a flawed position on day one, and by day two they represent a reality which only exists in their head. The Romney campaign has this problem, and it makes Obama's failure in the first debate all the more surprising. Nothing which Obama was challenged with was new, and his embaressing performance a reflection of yet another flawed mental model and inability to link to reality.

This is a topic I'll be returning to and this post serves as a kicking off point for it, would be interested in people's thoughts.


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