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essentials | Chapter 2

Unlearning Mental Models

Why unlearning?

In times of transformation, it’s not just technology that gets outdated. Our thinking does too.

We think about learning as adding to what we already know. But sometimes what we already know gets in the way of learning something new.

When ways of thinking that used to be effective don’t work as well anymore, we need to find new ones. This often requires as much unlearning as learning.

Trying to learn new information without changing the underlying thinking is like trying to paint over paint that’s peeling. You have to strip off the old paint first, otherwise the new paint won’t stick.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
— attributed to Mark Twain

To transform what we do, first we must transform how we think

Example: The Big Dig

When the landscape changes, we need new maps.

This was the situation 15 years ago in Boston thanks to a project called the Big Dig. All the highways were moved from above-ground to below the city.

The navigation devices at the time were of little use because their internal maps became obsolete.

This is the situation we find ourselves in today. The landscape of business has changed, but we haven't yet updated our mental maps for how to succeed.

Where do you feel the landscape

has changed in your business or industry?

Example: Look right

Mental models are often deeply ingrained in our mental and physical habits.

Mental models are our cognitive assumptions about how the world works. They represent our beliefs about how things are related and what actions cause which results.

Mental models can be hard to identify and shift because they are usually unconscious and deeply embedded in mental and physical habits.

Consider the tourists who visit London from countries that drive on the right side of the road.

It's easy to learn that you need to look right at a crosswalk. What's harder is unlearning the habit of looking left.

When have you had to unlearn an old habit?

Example: The backwards bicycle

Check out this video for a great example of how deeply ingrained mental models can be.

You’re not going to get exponential results  with a “bike” (mental model) that’s a little better and a little faster. You're going to have to learn how to ride a backwards bicycle.

The good news is that it can be done, and it doesn't necessarily take eight months. But it does mean rewiring your automatic responses, which means going through the awkward and frustrating phase where you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing.

Watch on YouTube

The unlearning trapeze

Think of unlearning as making the leap from one trapeze bar to another.

It's often said that people resist change. But resistance is often quite rational—and not as hard to overcome as we think.

Imagine that you are hanging from a trapeze bar. Everything is going fine, until the rope above you starts to fray. You look down, but there’s no net.

People yell at you to let go and stop resisting the change. But what's the alternative? The rational thing to do is hang on as long as you can until another bar comes within reach.

In this analogy, the first bar is the existing mental model, the fraying rope represents the forces that are making it obsolete, and the new bar is the new mental model.

The process of unlearning is finding the new bar, getting it close enough to reach, making the jump from the old to the new, and then bringing others along with you.

Help people make the leap

Three steps to help others shift their thinking.

First we need to shift our own thinking if we are going to ask others to make the jump. Then we need to understand the steps required to help others shift their thinking.

  1. Recognize when the rope is fraying. Recognize when mental models are growing outdated.
  2. Distinguish the old and new bars. Understand differences between old and new models.
  3. Bring the new bar within reach. It’s not enough to show that the new bar is better. People need to see that there’s a viable alternative.

1. Recognize when the rope is fraying

Know when mental models are growing outdated.

Are there actions that once produced reliable results but are now inconsistent or less effective? Are you not sure what to do, but you don’t feel that more data or information would add clarity?

These can be signs that the real problem lies with an outdated mental model.

Another indicator is when you feel caught between two competing objectives. They seem mutually exclusive, but you really want to have both. For example, companies today want to be global and local, have scale and intimacy, achieve profit and purpose.

Transcending tradeoffs like these takes a new kind of mindset.

2. Distinguish the old and new bars

Help clarify the differences.

The tricky thing about mental models is that they are deeply embedded and largely unconscious.

Mental models are the lens through which we see the world. And like glasses, once we get used to them, we don’t notice they are there.

Fortunately, language reveals our mental models. How we think is reflected in what we say.

For example, consider the following two statements: “We are moving our data to the cloud” vs. “We are moving our company to the cloud.”

These are not just semantic differences. They reflect very different mental models of cloud as an IT strategy or a business strategy.

3. Bring the new bar within reach

It’s not enough to show the new bar is better.

Moving to a new way of thinking has two risks. One risk is that people don’t see the new way as sufficiently different from the old, so they slip back into the default way of thinking. The other is that the new way is too different, leaving people no way to relate it to what they already know.

The solution is to use a familiar image to build a bridge between the old and the new.

“Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.”
—Margaret Shepard

The horseless carriage

To help people make the leap, describe the new in terms of the old.

When the automobile first came into existence, it was known as a horseless carriage, because it was like a horse-drawn carriage without the horse. Only over time did it take on its own name.

We can see the same thing in phrases like “driverless cars,” “digital wallet,” and “internet of things.”

One part comes from the existing model and one part is from the new model. This helps people understand and become comfortable with the new mental model.

“Innovation is a mixture of the old and the new with a dash of surprise.”
— Al Etmanski

Example: Introduction of the iPhone

A great example of a “horseless carriage” is the announcement by Steve Jobs of the original iPhone in 2007.

He began by talking about how Apple was announcing three new products: a touch-screen music player, a mobile phone and an Internet communicator. Then he showed how this wasn’t three products but one.

By doing this, he ensured that people understood the iPhone wasn’t just a phone, but had all three of these capabilities.


Mindshifts & Horseless Carriages

First, pick an audience. Who are you helping to make a shift in mental model?

Then, pick the domain you’re trying to effect change in. Transportation is the domain for “horseless carriages”

Now replace the words in the [brackets] with your terms.

Today, [your audience] thinks about [domain] as [existing mindset]. Example: Today everyday people think about transportation as horses.

Next, you’ll find the words you’ll use to reframe that mindset.

In the future, they could think about [domain] as [new mindset].
Example: In the future, they could think about transportation as automobiles.

Last, you’ll complete the transition by restating your new concept in terms of the old concept.

A way to think about the future of [domain] through the lens of the past is as [new mindset]. Example: A way to think about the future of transportation through the lens of the past is as a horseless carriage.


In times of transformation, it’s not just technology that gets obsolete. Our thinking does too.

  • Mental models are often deeply ingrained in our mental and physical habits.
  • Think of unlearning like making the leap from an untenable trapeze bar to a new one.
  • Here are three steps to help others shift their thinking:
  1. Recognize when the rope is fraying. Know when mental models are growing outdated.
  2. Distinguish the old and new bars.
    Help clarify the differences.
  3. Bring the new bar within reach. Use a “horseless carriage” strategy to present the
    new in terms of the old.

Go deeper

Read “Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning” by Mark Bonchek

Read “The Perils of Confusing Mental Models and Business Models” by Mark Bonchek

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