Mental Models & Mastery: Forging a Theory >>

Whether your an entrepreneur, executive, investor or other professional striving to be the very best at what you do, how can you accelerate your journey towards mastery? As an executive coach, how can I work with someone who already has a solid level of business experience and help them speed up their journey? This is what my Series Accelerating Executive Mastery >> sets out to explore.

But first, let’s dig deeper into the theory of mastery.

The Theory behind Models & Mastery

It turns out the authors of a fascinating book called Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficency in a Complex World were asking themselves similar questions and forging their own theory about this, on behalf of the US Department of Defense. The DoD was trying to wrap its head around the changing nature of warfare. They recognised that speed in acquiring the knowledge and skills to perform tasks is crucial, “yet it ordinarily takes many years to achieve high proficiency in countless jobs and professions in government, business, industry, and throughout the private sector”. Wouldn’t there be great advantages if regimens of training could be established that could accelerate the achievement of high levels of proficiency?

Business is not warfare but the military serves as a helpful metaphor, and there is a universal applicability of the book’s core theories and ideas as they relate to the acceleration of executive proficiency. It asks questions that will sound familiar to any business executive, like:

“How can we train for adaptivity and the need to cope with the ever-changing workplace and changing and challenging activities?”

“How can we train for resilience in the face of increasing complexity and unexpected events stretching resources and capabilities?”

Whether you are in the military, or a startup founder, CEO, other executive or professional, there’s a theoretical underpinning that supports anyone’s journey to mastery. By understanding it, you can speed it up.

Accelrating Executive Mastery

You’re reading my Series about Accelerating Executive Mastery >>, exploring the metagame of mastery and how you can get better, faster.

Read the first article in the Series – The Mental Models Paradox – and sign up to my Newsletter here, or in the pop-ups, to stay updated.

Predictive Processing and Mental Models, the building blocks of cognition

First, it’s important to understand what mental models are and how they form the basis of how the brain works. Why?

The human brain is a prediction machine. According to the predictive processing model of cognition, it’s constantly generating hypotheses about the world and updating them based on sensory input. The brain functions by minimizing prediction errors – the discrepancies between its predictions and incoming sensory information.

It’s continuously generating predictions at multiple levels of processing, from low-level sensory signals to high-level cognitive constructs. These predictions are based on prior knowledge, learned associations, and expectations derived from past experiences. Incoming sensory information is then compared with these predictions, and any disparities, or prediction errors, are used to update and refine the brain’s internal mental models of the world.

Using Bayesian inference, our brains combine prior beliefs with incoming sensory evidence to make sense of the world. By continually updating its predictions based on new information, our brain generate more accurate mental models of the environment, enabling efficient perception, cognition, and action.

It’s not a stretch then to say that mental models are the building blocks of human knowledge and reasoning. They are the cognitive structures that individuals create based on their experiences, observations, and interactions with the environment. They serve as a cognitive shortcuts that enable us to process information efficiently and make decisions in a timely manner. They help us make sense of complex phenomena, predict outcomes, and navigate the intricacies of daily life. Accelerating the rate at which we continually create, update, synthesise and advance our models is key to advancing mastery.

Moving from Explicit, to Tacit Knowledge

Mental model formation begins very early in life, as we learn to categorize and make connections between different pieces of information. Initially we build our knowledge and proficiency explicitly, based on teachable, learnable, conceptual facts we store in our memory and which are fairly static in nature. Explicit knowledge forms the basis of our mental models.

As we progress, we acquire more tacit knowledge, which is hard to express or extract, formalise or codify. It includes personal wisdom, experience, insight, and intuition. As we encounter these new experiences and gain more knowledge, our mental models adapt and evolve, incorporating fresh insights and refining existing beliefs. This dynamic nature allows us to continuously refine and expand our understanding of the world.

But as I explain in The Mental Models Paradox, not everyone progresses. That’s because, whilst being critical to us understanding the world, mental models are not reality. Rather they are a simplified, imperfect, internal representations of external reality.

A mental model is a representation of some domain or situation that supports understanding, reasoning, and prediction. Mental models permit reasoning about situations not directly experienced. They allow people to mentally simulate the behavior of a system. Many mental models are based on generalizations and analogies from experience. These generalizations are not always accurate; researchers have identified striking cases of widespread erroneous mental models.

Mental Models, Psychology Of

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

As the complexity of a situation increases, some struggle to deal with the higher level of abstraction that the complexity requires. And the ease with which their existing mental models help them understand and make sense of a given situation can mean they can’t move past them.

Masters, on the other hand, continue to progress. This is why it’s so important to understand mental models if we are to navigate the journey towards mastery. In any discipline, progression towards mastery hinges upon the development of our mental models.

In the initial stages of problem solving, experts spend proportionately more time than students generating a conceptual understanding of the problem. Experts generate representations that are conceptually richer and more organized than those of the students. Students tend to use hastily formed “concrete” (that is, superficial) problem representations.

When experts approach familiar problems, their responses do not tend to be from an analytıcal or deliberative process as is the case for non-experts. Rather, an organized set of memories drawn from extensive experience forms schemas or mental models, which give meanıng and structure to familiar and repeatedly encountered problem sets. These schemas provide intuitive, immediate cognitive frameworks to help understand the nature of the problem, derive potential solutions, and anticipate constraints. This has been called Recognition-Primed Decision Makıng

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficency in a Complex World

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World provides a definitive guide to what these theories that underpind mastery are. They’re summarised below, but you should also check out this complete summary of the book by Cedric Chin.

Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT)

When we rely on only explicit knowledge our problem solving is an analytic, conscious, deliberative, step-wise process. It hangs off an explicit attachment to and reliance on overarching mental models and frameworks. Earlier on in our career, you could say that the map IS the territory.

As we gain more experience, we move to a way of reasoning and knowing that is more rapid, automatic (William James talked about the concept of automaticity in his Principles of Psychology as far back as 1890) and subconscious. The wisdom of experts lies not in just knowing about any given mental model or framework and applying it verbatim to a situation. Rather, in something much more intuitive and deeper. 

Cognitive flexibility is the “ability to represent knowledge from different conceptual and case perspectives and construct from those an adaptive knowledge ensemble tailored to the needs of the problem at hand”.

The emphasis of Cognitive Flexibility Theory is on overcoming simplifying mental models

When we demonstrate cognitive flexibility, we:

  • Avoid the reductive tendency, which includes:
    • Spuriously oversimplifying complex problems into just one mental model
    • Regularising the irregular
    • De-contextualising concepts
    • Relying on generic abstractions which can be far too removed from specific instances experienced to be applicable to new cases
  • Avoid invoking knowledge shields which preserve simplistic understandings in the face of contradictory evidence (this requires feedback)
  • Instead, we draw on previous knowledge and experience to meaningfully integrate the patterns of the current situation into past experience. We assemble, integrate and update new knowledge, rather than just recall it. In doing so we better understand the context, sensemake and update our situational awareness

Cognitive Transformation Theory (CTT)

Some workers stagnate as their performance asymptotes because they are so effective in defending flawed mental models. Cognitive Transformation Theory argues for the importance of unlearning experiences that force people to lose faith in their mental models so that they can move to the next level. The implication is that high levels of proficiency are achieved when the practitioner has an ability to lose confidence in an existing mental model.

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

Cognitive Transformation Theory emphasıses the paradoxical fact that the better the mental model the harder it is to move past it because the model does a better a job and is easier to protect using knowledge shields, to explain away contrary data. 

Highly proficient people, on the hand, don’t become trapped by their existing models. ‘Unlearning’ is key here (though I’m not enthralled by this phrase as what is unlearned is not necessarily completely lost). However you wish to define it, what’s important is that the individual has an experience which pushes them to lose faith in their existing mental model and discard it.

Forging a Theory of Mastery

I’m borrowing here the title of Chapter 11 of Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World, which brings together the two theories of Cognitive Flexibility Theory and Cognitive Transformation Theory into a core syllogism:

Cognitive Flexibility Theory and Cognitive Transformation Theory each try to achieve increases in proficiency, but in different ways. For Cognitive Flexibility Theory, it is flexibility and for Cognitive Transformation Theory, it is a better mental model, but one that will have to be thrown out later on… Cognitive Flexibility Theory emphasises the achievement of flexibility whereas Cognitive Transformation Theory emphasises the need for unlearning and relearning. Both theories regard advanced learning as a form of sensemaking (discovery, reflection) and both regard learning as discontinuous; advancing when flawed mental models are replaced, stable when a model is refined and gets harder to disconfirm.

The core syllogism of the CFT-CTT merger:

1. Learning is the active construction of knowledge; the elaboration and replacement of mental models, causal stories, or conceptual understandings.
2. All mental models are limited. People have a variety of fragmentary and often reductive mental models.
3. Training must support the learner in overcoming reductive explanations.
4. Knowledge shields lead to wrong diagnoses and enable the discounting of evidence.
5. Reductive explanation reinforces and preserves itself through misconception networks and through knowledge shields. Flexible learning involves the interplay of concepts and contextual particulars as they play out within and are influenced by cases of application within a domain
.

Therefore learning must also involve unlearning and relearning.
Therefore advanced learning is promoted by emphasising the interconnectedness of multiple cases and concepts along multiple conceptual dimensions, and the use of multiple, highly organised representations.

Experts don’t Just think about the systems they control, they’re also thinking about the ways the rest of the work intersects with these. Expertise is not about people forming a rich mental model and holding that in their heads. Rather, it’s about gaining an abllity to re-generate mental models as needed. We need to prepare people to think dynamically, probably through scenarios based upon varied contexts and to prepare people to engage in anticipatory thinking and problem detection. In domains of dynamics and complexity, the work (including the technologies) is continually changing and thus mental models have to
change.

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

In conclusion:

Masters take their existing knowledge and weave together and construct new, more intricate and nuanced models. This is enshrined in Cognitive Flexibility Theory – the “ability to represent knowledge from different conceptual and case perspectives and construct from those an adaptive knowledge ensemble tailored to the needs of the problem at hand”.

Masters don’t get trapped by their existing mental models. This is enshrined in Cognitive Transformation Theory, which emphasıses the paradoxical fact that the better the mental model the harder it is to move past it because the model does a better a job and is easier to protect using knowledge shields, to explain away contrary data.

From Theory to Action

We’re left with a few questions:

  • How can you embrace Cognitive Flexibility Theory and Cognitive Transformation Theory effectively on your journey towards executive mastery?
  • How can you speed up the process by which you do it?
  • Are the theories disucussed here enough, or do we need to draw on wider theories that consider executive-level leadership?

As the title suggests, Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World focuses on how to train people for this. In the absence of you being able to design and afford your own comprehensive executive training programme, how can you do this as an individual?

Accelrating Executive Mastery

Accelerating Executive Mastery: 10 ways to get better, faster >> is the next article in this Series.

It identifies 10 common factors that you need to be actively working on if you want to speed up your journey to becoming a more effective executive – Motivation, Time on the job, Continuous Learning, Deliberate Practice, Feedback, Coaching, Mentoring, Inner Work, Reflective Practice, and Deliberately Developmental Practice.


I’m Richard Hughes-Jones, an Executive Coach to CEOs and senior technology leaders.

My clients are transitional founders, CEOs and executives in high-growth technology businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates.

Having often already mastered the technical aspects of their craft, I help my clients navigate the complex adaptive challenges associated with executive-level leadership and growth.

Find out more about my Executive Coaching services and get in touch if you’d like to explore working together. You can also read my Complete Guide to Finding the Right Executive Coach for You.

Executive Coach - Richard Hughes-Jones