Drift, Design, and Disruption

Why do people sometimes see the world so differently?

The Taliban stubbornly held on to Kirgay, using it as a base to perform all kinds of mischief against our supply convoys and against our Afghan army and police partners in the area. Kirgay is a pretty little village in the Now Zad district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, or at least it was in the fall of 2011 when it was part of our battalion’s area of operations.

Kirgay was a key because it sits at the western end of a ridgeline that dominates the approaches to the district capital. On the east, the ridge overlooks (and threatened) the one main supply route that runs into the district center. To the west, it serves as a spring board to cut off any traffic trying to cross the open desert in that direction.

In late November of that year, we put together an operation to take Kirgay away from the Taliban and establish an Afghan National Police position in the town. As usual with tactical events like this, the young Marines did a terrific job planning the operation and performed even better during its execution, despite some bad weather. And as you would expect from the Marines, during the early morning hours of darkness they seized the high ground overlooking the town. When the sun came up and the Marines and Afghan soldiers entered the town, there was the briefest of firefights and then the Taliban quickly departed – at least from Kirgay.

I was excited and wanted to take advantage of our success as quickly as possible, so we put out the word for the village elders to join us for a shura (a traditional meeting of leaders) in the early afternoon that day. I was planning to explain the purpose behind the operation, to introduce our Afghan police counterparts, and to offer assistance for anyone in the village who had been abused by the Taliban. It was an open-air meeting held by the main entrance to the village, we sat on cushions on top of a rug someone had put down. As was the custom, we were all served tea and then introductions were made.

Right after introductions (and I mean, right after the introductions), one of the elders spoke up in a very animated fashion. This gentleman really looked the part of a wizened village elder, wearing traditional Afghan dress, hair and beard all white, and a weathered face. I was thinking that Khalid, my interpreter, was going to say this gent was either thanking me, or was mad at me, for moving the Taliban out (we weren’t too sure which team’s jersey the locals favored). Instead, Khalid basically told me, “This man is mad at you. He’s mad because you have young Marines up on the ridgeline above the town. The Marines can see over the walls of his compound, and can see his women. He wants you to get the Marines down from the hill.”

Whether you know it or not, you hold a model of the world (and how you believe the world should work) in your mind. We all do, and it’s aptly called a “mental model.” The human brain is a wonderous thing, but it does have limits. Because of the sheer complexity of the universe our brains simplify it to produce our mental model. We behave rationally within the confines of our model but sometimes it isn’t adapted to the requirements of the real world (this helps explain why witnesses to the same event often provide conflicting versions of what happened).

I researched and wrote about mental models when I was at an officer education program I was lucky enough to attend a few years before our deployment to Afghanistan. I planned to use what I learned to better understand the Marines that I led. I also wanted to become better at aligning our thinking, to improve our pursuit of common goals.

What I didn’t expect was to travel to the other side of the world to be handed a stark, crystal clear example of two different mental models, two different understandings of how the world works. Because of my previous research, in that moment I knew the village elder and I shared significantly different mental models. Not only our experiences, but our governing assumptions about how the universe works were worlds apart. Literally. This elderly gentleman was acting rationally because he was operating within his model of how the world was supposed to work, and I realized it. It’s an understatement to say I didn’t agree with his priorities, but it was still an amazing moment.

I’ve thought about that moment often in the years since it happened. I suspect a psychologist could glean other things from it, but here are some ideas about it that could be useful for leaders:

1. Investing time in understanding the background of the people you lead is time well spent. Where someone grew up, the experiences they had, and the books they read (and more) all affect the choices they make. Leaders who really understand those things are better able to build trust, and strong teams.

2. Our mental models change by drift, design, or disruption. Drift is the natural course of things, as we age and accumulate experiences. Design happens when we purposefully pull in new ideas, like when we go to college or read a new book. Disruption arrives when a significant event that we didn’t expect is traumatically introduced into our model from the outside world. Knowing these concepts gives leaders great leverage when it comes to aligning the thinking of their people.

3. The mental model you have affects how you orient on any situation that arises. That orientation affects the decisions you make and the actions you take. You can see walking on a hill as a way to dominate your opponent – or you can see walking on it as a violation of a cultural taboo. The hill doesn’t care what choice you make, but your orientation on the question sure matters.

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