Religious Fervor

Our methodological tools are merely that–tools. But we become attached to them, and soon we are no longer craftsmen, but disciples. When that happens, we become tunnel-visioned; everything demands the same tool.

The world is full of experts who believe their tool bests every other!

Whether strategy maps, KPIs, Scrum or Waterfall, it’s easy to get attached to models –especially if they work. But instead of using them solely when they best apply, through our habitual application of them we can lose our openness to alternatives.

It isn’t only a problem in management and strategy. It’s equally common in politics, education and medicine.

This came to me over several months of conversations about someone else’s favorite model. I suggested tools I like, but was met with emphatic claims there was no valid alternative to the tool in question.

This seemed strange to me. Say you have a socket wrench you love. That doesn’t mean that you deny Allen wrenches the right to also call themselves wrenches!

But that’s exactly what we do when we worship at the altar of any mental model.

To The OR. Stat!

In 1915, tonsillectomies were the most common surgery in the US. As late as the 1970’s, most children had their tonsils and adenoids removed following a single ear infection. That was true for both of my sisters and for me.  It took almost 60 years for evidence of tonsillectomy deaths to finally convince the medical profession that it might not be a panacea for all that ails.

Between 1910 and 1930, psychoanalysis was a de rigueur for melancholia in the middle- and upper-classes. But one had to choose a practitioner based on their use of Freudian or Jungian models. The choice was binary. Those who were Freudians dismissed Jung and his followers. Jungians felt likewise.

In both of these spheres, the tools had transcended the toolbox and moved into the Ark with the Torah.

Of course, neither the tonsillectomy nor the shrink’s couch have disappeared. But they have resumed their status as tools; that is to say, as one of many possible ways to solve various problems.

Ooh, Ooh, Ooh, Use Mine!

In business, devotion to a tool or model narrows the aperture for problem-solving. We all know the saying “To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. It is especially true in knowledge work. If we are deeply bound to a single heuristic for (say) strategic planning, then we will apply only that lens to strategic challenges.

And it happens across functions. In product, companies tend to choose one of the many methods of product management. They are wedded to their model and become “Scrum” shops or “Waterfall” shops.  Recently, there was a post on LinkedIn about using both methods together for better outcomes. I await the comments from disciples of one or the other approaches.

HR and psychology have their own sacred cows. Take personality testing. Suggest to a Myers-Briggs user that the test was inaccurate for you, and they will tell you it was administered wrong. DISC or 5-Strengths proponents are equally dogged about their own superiority!

Cognitive Entrenchment

The irony of this kind of fixedness is that it grows along with expertise. That makes it unlike the Dunning-Kruger Effect in which the least knowledgeable person has the highest level of confidence. Here, the most knowledgeable person is the least cognitively flexible.

Many practitioners and business leaders believe there is a single best way to do everything: strategy, metrics, projects, software development and more.

Cognitive entrenchment—the psychological term for over-reliance on specific mental models– covers much broader ground than tools and methodologies. It’s defined as “having a high level of stability in one’s schema”. In this case, schema is a term of art to describe the mental models of any subject matter.

We develop a schema habit—and it can narrow our perspective. Over time, it calcifies into dogmatism and stubborness.

Too Many Pros

Consider this finding: The more banking experts on a bank’s board, the greater the likelihood of the bank failing. On the surface this seems deeply counter-intuitive.

But the experts’ entrenchment leads them to view things through the mental models they always use. Here’s what one CEO in the study said:

‘ “Bankers […] run models and […] numbers: What is your debt coverage? What is your debt to income? The truth of the matter is sometimes just a bit of local knowledge gives you a better feeling of the risk factors associated with the loan.”

Who sits on most boards? Experts in that industry.

Depth VS. Breadth

As I ran down the research to better understand this phenomenon, I had two questions:

  • How do I find out if I am cognitively entrenched about something?, and
  • How can individuals and organizations prevent entrenchment?

Let me answer the second one first because it will give us signals for how to address the first.

As I said, entrenchment increases with expertise. As we grow in our mastery of any subject, our knowledge base deepens. We have more detailed, granular and technical understanding within that area—more depth.

Early in one’s career, that’s critical. It grows our skill at a time when we need to know more.

But later, that narrow focus increases the likelihood of entrenchment.

Research suggests that those who maintain breadth are less likely to become entrenched. Breadth means reading, learning, and gaining exposure across many subject areas.

The other thing that we can do is attack the Einstellung Effect.  

You encounter a situation, and you have seen so many similar ones in the past that you instantly know what it is and what to do. I’ve had this experience recently with surgeons who I consulted about my residual facial paralysis. Following a 30 second, virtual examination, they each proposed a series of complicated surgical procedures.

That is the Einstellung Effect.

It is an artifact of cognitive entrenchment. That first answer feels right. The scenario is familiar, and it seems like the same thing that worked before will work here.

But you can’t possibly know that without exploring more options. So, look for different descriptions, diagnoses and solutions.

Ignoring the instant answer will feel wrong—and worse, inefficient. But there is no way to break through entrenchment other than to BREAK it.

Is My Mind Really Open?

The symptoms of entrenchment are subtle, because they look a lot like simply being a journeyman. As an individual it may feel like determination or self-righteousness. If you find yourself defending your position, that’s a sign of possible entrenchment.

If you suspect you have become dogmatic about the tools you use, consider taking a break from that specific tool. You love Myers-Briggs? Ok, try using DISC for a few months. Discover what it reveals that’s different than Myers-Briggs. There is always a different tool –and when you use it, you will see things in a novel way.

In teams or organizations, the signs are more obvious. Solutions will feel like “paint by numbers”. Everyone knows the drill. There are few disputes and few proposed options.

Entrenchment is domain agnostic. No function is safe—not product, engineering, strategy or even sales.

One of the side effects of entrenchment is over-confidence. And that has a particular vibe in an organization.  It’s especially problematic on boards of directors and within leadership teams.

Everyone shares similar experiences and beliefs. When coupled to groupthink, there is no hint of dissent, and everyone is confident in decisions. That means less skepticism, fewer alternatives and less argumentation. It’s a set-up for terrible decision making.

If your team decisions are “on rails”—never taking detours to have arguments, check research, or test hypotheses, the odds are entrenchment is to blame.

Again, you break the grip of cognitive entrenchment by BREAKING it. Insist on more options, new tools, different opinions and non-expert insights. It will produce not just different but better results.

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