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Mark Bonchek - image

Mark Bonchek: Transforming the company using new mental models

Leadership masterclass - Mindshift: Tools for Transformation

Mark Bonchek - image

Transformation can turn a caterpillar into a new creature with better capability. Mark Bonchek, founder of Shift Thinking says business transformation is a similar process. It does require shedding our skin (unlearning old mental models) and a soup (replacing them with new models). He shared some methods for doing this in this week’s masterclass Mindshift: Tools for Transformation.

Why we’re in a time of transformation

Mark Bonchek predicted social media in the 1990s. He saw the potential of communicating not “one to one” but “one to many” (the last time that had happened was the printing press). Mark knew digital tech harnessing the network effect would represent an exponential change. Everyone would now be able to connect to everyone.

But we’ve been operating with mental models from the industrial age, he says.

  • We focus on incremental change, continuity, continuous improvement (a focus on efficiency, for example).
  • Most companies are still hierarchical; even the flatter organisations are just “shorter pyramids.”

Lesson: Ask yourself where you see the need for transformation in your organisation?

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The pace of change. How do our brains deal with this?

We can cope with an incredible pace of change but only when we look back. At the start of 2020 we never could have imagined we’d all be videoconferencing or relying on telehealth (which has increased in popularity 40x more than before COVID-19). Mark says we simply can’t respond how we did before.

You cannot analyse the information sufficiently as to know what to do next, he says.

It used to be:

  • analyse-plan-process-remove uncertainty/take out risk- order sequence of steps

In a network world that doesn’t work. It’s not a step by step journey. It’s a multiplier. It’s not 2+2+2 it’s 2x2x2x2. Each step doubles. Every step on an exponential journey is unprecedented.

Lesson: Be prepared to let go of your old way of thinking.

When you can’t see very far ahead

The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed – William Gibson

On a journey of transformation, you can’t know more than a step or two ahead.

That means accepting you are only able to do what that next step is, says Mark. Rather than look at dated information look for PATTERNS and MODELS.

  • What are the qualities and conditions of the situation you are in?
  • Ask yourself “What is this like? What does this remind me of?”

Lesson: Start by setting a direction without certainty on how you’re going to get there. Like sailing, know where you want to go but, as you don’t know the winds you’ll face, be prepared to tack.

How do you define transformation vs change?  

It’s all about mental models, says Mark. We have different types of models to understand change.

·       Developmental model of change – how children grow up into adults – you have increased capability over time.

·       Repair/break/fix model of change. It stops working so you fix it.

But neither model is right for now. We need to make new systems that are non-incremental. Where are the models of exponential/transformational change? Nature does have those models.


Metamorphosis model

Metamorphosis is done by different species – caterpillar into butterfly, grasshopper into locust, or tadpole into frog. Looking at the caterpillar into butterfly: It’s a new, better, different kind of capability. A caterpillar doesn’t turn into a butterfly by taking flying lessons. It has to completely transform in four stages:

·       SHEDS: It sheds its skin. Transformation involves rethinking your sense of yourself. We need to be less the manager and more the multiplier.

·       SHELL: Underneath the skin forms this chrysalis in which the transformation occurs safely. You need safety, social and psychological safety because you will take risks.

·       SEEDS: The seeds in the DNA represent the seeds you will need in the future (ie. a widening field of view, a greater sense of uncertainty).

·       SOUP: Everything becomes soup before it reforms and turns into an insect with wings. Boy we don’t like getting into the soup! We like to stick with what we know, says Mark.

Lesson: Be prepared to rethink your identity, your sense of yourself.

What happens when an organisation doesn’t have the capacity to make change? (numbers, making revenue?) When the board doesn’t buy into it?  

Then transform the thinking before you start the doing. Build inside the organisation a network of people who believe that transformation is imperative. Mark says we often go straight to change management (changing what people do). Instead shift to “transformation of thinking” – and find the people who need to understand that type of change.

Lesson: Frame transformation conversations in a way that references what they are already focussed on (stock, revenue). Start with where they are at.

People are exhausted. When there’s a bad taste in their mouth about transformation. 

When there is pushback and fear, ask: “What do we mean by transformation?” Start the conversation this way. “Hey, we’ve got stuff that we need to fix (repair model), but our problem is the aspirations are exponential – we need to double revenue, but the results won’t change if the model doesn’t change.”

Imagine they’re hanging from a trapeze with a fraying rope. They will hang on if there is no other bar to jump to. People get stuck because they don’t have the thinking or safety. They’re not being given the tools. You need to give people these new bars. First and foremost, it’s a different way of thinking, an expansion of capability. A key piece is that everything the caterpillar needs to become the butterfly is already in the caterpillar.

Lesson: You already have what can transform you into what you need. Really look at what you’ve got that can turn into what you need.

Nature of unlearning

If you go to a country where they drive on the opposite side of the road, you have to unlearn how you cross the street or drive a car. Not because you don’t know how to cross a street or drive a car but because of the way your brain is wired. Unlearning is stepping out of that wiring. You still need to operate in a linear world, but you can recognise when there is a network effect happening to you, or available to you. You can choose one or the other.

Lesson: Be awake to network effects, and be prepared for unlearning when you come across them.

Example of a major beverage company

One major drinks company came up with this set of principles to know which model to be operating in.

·       If the known is greater that the unknown (we’re in incremental thinking model)

·       If the unknown is greater than the known (we’re in the exponential thinking model).

They also used it for:

·       Are we in a divide the pie model? (incremental)

·       Or grow the pie model? (exponential).

The do the divide the pie meeting in the morning and the grow the pie meeting in the afternoon.

Lesson: Understand that in some situations incremental thinking will not get you where you want to go. You can’t always get there from here without new thinking.

Fall/fail & risk

A professional skier doesn’t want to fall in a race, but they do need to fall to find their edge. If they fall and realise they’ve gone past the edge, then they pull back a bit. If they fall and don’t learn, that’s a failure. Fall and get hurt, that’s also a failure.

In a nutshell:

·       Fall in the right setting

·       Learn something

·       Don’t get hurt.

In a business setting there are lots of potential edges.

Lesson: Focus on how to operate in that edge zone. How do you set up the conditions (safety) to fall without failing? 

How do you do annual planning?  

Mark recommends you go for a lot of specificity to one month out then switch to scenarios and possibilities.

“Look for what are the paths we might take? What are the signals or metrics that will tell us if we’re on track or not? Rather than forcing the outcome of the plan,” he says.

Planning doesn’t go away but takes on a different meaning. It’s sailing but not motor boating.

Lesson: Don't see planning as getting to a fixed state or address. It’s not a planned holiday with every restaurant and hotel set out beforehand.

Intentional learning

Instead of a minimum viable product (MVP) consider instead a maximum learning opportunity (MLO). For example, if you are building the MVP for a car you might build:

skateboard – bicycle – motorbike – car

But MLO is a more useful, advanced way to do this. It’s figuring out what are the capabilities, skills and masteries at each step. You build a skateboard to master how wheels work. You measure coefficients; you get really good at wheels. Then you figure out steering and gears – that’s the bicycle. MLOs maximise the learning at every point of the journey. 

Lesson: Give people things to celebrate and focus on: Look at this wheel spin! Look at this engine go! The moon landing was a good example of MLO. The team saw the immediate value and impact at each stage, moving them towards a future state (the landing of a man on the moon).

Being a manager vs Being a multiplier

The term manager came from a word that once meant horse-handler. We still have that notion of a manager in control of a team. They are rewarded as to how well they control. But we are now in a world with less control. We need to rethink the role. We need a different kind of identity – how well we can multiply results to manage these network effects to get exponential results.

Lesson: Think about how you can empower others to have an influence in their community. That’s an example of a multiplier.

How do you move from pyramid hierarchy to network?

Create the network inside the hierarchy, says Mark. Operate your team more as a flock. Change your role as a leader, or empower the leader to work from shared purpose and principles (servant leadership model, multiplier model).

Lesson: Look at the fall/fail model and ask the team “What do you need from me as the team leader?”

Thinking styles

We think in different ways in different times. To discover your thinking styles go to: 


We are experiencing accelerating change that is unprecedented. To transform we need to do as the caterpillar does when it turns into the butterfly. We must move from incremental change to metamorphosis by unlearning and learning new mental models. All of these mental models are relevant to the transformation journey. As a leader, your job is not to pick any one model, but to know which model to use in which situation.   

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