Challenging Our Conference Mental Models To Build Future Effective Events

Fire Lookout Tower, Timms Hill, Wisconsin

How do we think? And just as important, how and what do we think about our conferences and events?

How do we understand our conference planning processes, its underlying assumptions, and our customers, partners, exhibitors, and stakeholders? How do we create knowledge about our conferences that serve as our cognitive maps and meaning structures during the planning and execution stages?

What is the result of our conference assumptions and perceptions? How do we anticipate the needs and aspirations of our customers and therefore make sensible decisions about the who, why, what, how and when of our conferences? What triggers our thinking and reasoning about our events?

Answer: We rely on our mental models!

Elaborating on that answer: Perception and language comprehension— the ability to correctly process word and phrase meanings, sentence grammar, and discourse or text structure—yield mental models. Thinking and reasoning are our cerebral management of those mental models. (Mental Models by Kishan Salian.)

Defining Mental Models

Our mental models are the cognitive frameworks, meaning structures, conceptual representations, and thoughts of our understanding of the world. They are the images, assumptions, and stories which we carry in our minds of our conferences, institutions, ourselves, others and our work.

Mental models are crucial tools that help us navigate through work and life. They allow us to make assumptions about how things work. And they unconsciously influence our behavior and decisions.

We falsely believe that our mental models are sound, without fault and based on facts. We stake our decisions, jobs, careers and lives on them. We even consider them as our guiding tenants—our truths.

Chained To The Past

Our mental models resist change.

Often, they keep us chained to the past, to outdated and ineffective practices.

We don’t like to change what we think we know. It’s work. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unfamiliar. Sometimes they imprison us from current, scientifically proven, ways of thinking and doing.

Our existing mental models are major obstacles to creating and supporting new conference innovations and improvements. They control our decisions and guide our behaviors. To plan more effective future events, we have to challenge our mental models in order to think and act differently.

Your Conference Mental Models Control You

Our conference mental models control us. They provide a framework for our reasoning and behavior. They mediate our conference reality.

For example, we believe that planning future conferences is a fixed process. It should be done exactly like we did in the past with just a few tweaks. We even replicate last year’s schedule and only change the filling. (That’s our conference mental model lazy brain at work for ya!)

Herein lies the big challenge with our conference mental models…

Left unchallenged, these mental models cause us to see what we’ve always seen. We see the same needs, the same problems, the same opportunities, the same results. We default to the past and familiar ways of thinking and acting. Our conference planning becomes projecting status quo with new dates, new location and a new venue.

Why does this happen? Because we see and perceive what our mental models allow us to see. Once they are formed, our cognitive maps become fixed and difficult to change. Thus our projections of the future suffer from basic assumptions that are not usually valid.

Hat tips Masa Magna’s Mental Models for Leadership Effectiveness, Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization and The Systems Leadership Institute.

How do you deal with your and your planning teams’ current conference mental models? What’s one conference mental model that is difficult to change and challenges your conference planning team?

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