By Bethany Kemp - July 11, 2016


Over the last decade, simulations have become a critical component of corporate learning and development strategies at many of the most well-respected organizations in the world. This increasing popularity can be traced to improvements in technology, the shifting of power in the workforce from baby boomers to generation X and millennials, and an increasing body of research that shows that simulations are a more effective way to learn.1

As someone who has spent the last 12 years building and facilitating simulations for thousands of leaders across the globe, it is important to understand that not all simulations are created equally. Almost all simulations are engaging and fun; the nature of the process almost guarantees it. Anytime you combine game elements, relevant topics, team-based activities, compressed time frames, and competition, you will almost always get a positive response from the learner.

However, the goal of simulations in a corporate environment is not to “edutain,” but to transform the way that people think and behave. Changing the way people think is not an easy task, but it is a critical activity that leads to sustained behavior change. In order to design a simulation that facilitates a change in thinking, one of the key concepts to understand is the concept of “mental models.” Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School, defines mental models in the following way:

“Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”2

At a practical level, what this means is that each of us views the world in a completely different way—through our own mental model. This unique mental model influences the ways in which we interpret events, understand problems, and develop solutions.

Let’s take a simple example of two different mental models and how those models could lead to different types of behavior in a business setting. Consider the following simplified mental models of two Regional vice presidents at a big box retailer:

The example above represents the mental models of two regional vice presidents, Emery and Asher. The width of each arrow represents the impact Emery and Asher believe each of these variables has on customer satisfaction.

Emery’s mental model map reveals that she thinks that the most important driver of customer satisfaction is the price of the products in her store. She believes that store cleanliness is the second most important driver and that employee satisfaction has almost no impact on customer satisfaction.

When we compare Asher’s mental model with Emery’s, we see something very different. Asher’s mental model map reveals that he thinks that employee satisfaction has the biggest impact on customer satisfaction, and that the price of products has the least impact on customer satisfaction. When it comes to store cleanliness, he believes that it has some impact.

Now that we understand that they both think differently about the concept of customer satisfaction, let’s consider how these different mental models can influence behavior.

Imagine that you are the senior vice president of store operations and you and a team of high-priced consultants have developed 10 initiatives to address a significant drop in customer satisfaction at your stores. Five of these address pricing and promotions, while the other five are focused on training and improving the levels of engagement in the store employees. You assign Emery and Asher to execute these initiatives at their stores with the goal of improving customer satisfaction.

Fast forward to the next quarter and you find that Emery has successfully executed the pricing and promotional initiatives, and has done little on the training and employee engagement front. At Asher’s stores, the story is the exact opposite with all employee initiatives executed flawlessly and little progress on the new pricing and promotion strategy. Both stores have seen little change in overall customer satisfaction, and your job is in jeopardy.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There are countless articles and case studies just like this one describing the failure of organizations to adopt a new strategy, leading to losses of market share, revenues, and shareholder value. One of the reasons why strategies often fail is because even the best leaders fail to address one of the most important drivers of behavioral change—mental models.

The key takeaway here is that in order for Emery and Asher to implement your strategy they need to think differently about the problem, and the most important task for you as a leader is to help them do so by changing their mental models.

The good news is that mental models are not fixed—they can change. Our brains are capable of neuroplasticity, which is another way of saying we can change the way that we think. Consider the act of learning to ride a bike. It starts off as something incredibly difficult for your brain and body to handle, and then as we develop new neural connections, it becomes easier. Mental models can change in the same way. (For a fantastic example of how you can change your “bike riding mental model,” check out this video called THE BACKWARDS BRAIN BICYCLE). Changing mental models is not easy, (as we can see in the example of the Backwards Brain Bicycle video), but it is possible and has a significant influence on behavioral change.

Over the last 13 years, The Regis Company has built a global organization focused on understanding and changing mental models in order to generate changes in thinking and behavior that lead to better business results for our clients.

By focusing on how people think, as opposed to only what people think, we have created extraordinary experiences for learners and our clients. At the core of what we do are three simple principles, tied to mental models, which we recommend you consider anytime you are trying to change behavior or implement a new initiative:

  1. Awareness: Help your people understand their current mental models. The simple act of becoming aware of your current mental models can lead to changes in thinking and behavior. This can be done through various assessment, survey, and feedback tools.
  2. Accelerate the Change process: Create training interventions that help people change their mental models. Simulations and actual experience are the most effective tools for accelerating this process, but there are many other experiences that can change the way that people view the world.
  3. Measure progress and set goals: Provide your people with insights into how their mental models have changed, how their current mental models compare with expert mental models, and how much further they need to progress.

With these simple steps, you too can begin to leverage the latest in cognitive science and begin to change the way people think and behave—by addressing their mental models.


  • Vogel, J. J., Vogel, D. S., Cannon-Bowers, J., Bowers, C. A., Muse, K., & Wright, M. (2006). Computer gaming and interactive simulations for learning: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 34(3), 229-243.
  • Senge, Peter M. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.



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