How can we develop our thinking?


How clear are we on how we make decisions? How much understanding do we have of the bias we may hold, through which we view ourselves, an organisation or the world?

How may this influence the decisions we make and the approach we take?

After having many of these thoughts over the last few weeks, I decided to explore these ideas in a previous article. Here, I summarised my personal view on the concept of having different ‘life’ perspectives and my take on how they may impact our day-to-day decisions. If you haven’t already read this article, I strongly suggest you do so; the ideas expressed in this article will be based upon my past musings and build upon those ideas. You can find it: here.

This article further inquires into the ideas previously established and will examine a number of different areas of study from various individuals in attempts to explore some of the complex questions which have arisen.

Mental Models

A ‘mental model’ is a term which describes a concept, framework or worldview which we use to experience the world around us. Peter Senge (whose works are studied later on in the article) expresses how ‘mental models’ are “deeply ingrained assumptions of the world that influence how we understand and/or our actions”.

What ‘mental models’ may we carry?

‘Mental models’ are formed, and heavily reinforced, by our experiences and beliefs, and may impact our proficiency in a particular skill or within specific areas of thinking. Whilst they may not necessarily be perfect, they can be useful in helping us understand certain aspects of the world.

For me, a few important questions arise:

Firstly, what ‘mental models’ might I carry with me? How do I use these as tools to help me throughout my daily life? In what way do these ‘mental models’ assist me, and which areas of life do they help me address?

And secondly, how may I be tempted to rely on my own ‘mental models’ and disregard the validity of others? How can I be aware of my own tendency to do this?

The idea of “deeply ingrained assumptions” impacting the way we view the world is a consistent theme throughout the theories discussed in this article.

Equality of Views: Michael Oakeshott

Oakeshott believes that experience involves thinking- therefore, it is related to ideas. For Oakeshott, when a body of ideas has established its own integrity and is distinctly different from other bodies of thought, a ‘mode’ is said to have arisen.

A ‘mode’ is a “distinct and self-coherent whole of interlocking meanings” in that a singular mode will make sense exclusively to the “criteria of factuality, truth and reality” which accompanies the mode (and plays a part in its formation).

This is similar to the idea of a ‘mental model’; the ‘mode’ only makes sense to itself and that any attempt to view a ‘mode’ from a different perspective will undermine the self-asserted validity of the mode.

As such, the ‘mode’ is completely dependent upon the unique set of experiences which have resulted in the formation of the mode, meaning in itself it is autonomous. It is therefore “logically incapable of denying or confirming the conclusions of any other ‘mode’” as all are independent from each other.

This is a pivotal area of Oakeshott’s thinking, as his theory identifies that “truth” is different between different ‘modes’ of thinking; as each mode obeys a different set of rules and criteria, arguing truth across ‘modes’ is irrelevant as you cannot prove nor disprove any one ‘mode’s’ validity over another.

This part of the theory is interesting to encounter. I know from my own experiences that there have been multiple occasions in my life where I have been encouraged to believe in a singular “correct” way of thinking, only to realise that to someone else, it doesn’t make sense.

I wonder how this has impacted my ability to respect and understand the different views of others.

In Oakeshott’s theory, definitions also vary between ‘modes’ meaning such definitions cannot be used to objectively judge the validity of one ‘mode’ over another. For example, Oakeshott believes that “rational” has a different definition across each ‘mode’ meaning no ‘mode’ can be inherently “irrational”.

 In fact, he proposes that the assumption that there is a common definition of “rationality” is based upon the unconscious belief that definitions considered to be reasonable in one ‘mode’ are inherently superior to definitions established within different ‘modes’ of thought.

From this, Oakeshott reasons that no mode of thought, or way of thinking, has any more “final solutions” than another, and that there is no inherently “correct” way of thinking. 

Perhaps we have the tendency to assume that there is such a way of thinking: as mentioned before, I know that I myself have deep assumptions about what is “correct” and “true”. Part of my ongoing journey is to challenge myself on those assumptions, and I wonder if this is a journey we may all benefit from.

What assumptions have I made about what is “true”? 

Where is it that these assumptions have come from?

How do they influence the beliefs I hold?

How might it be possible to change my assumptions of the “truth”? What impacts would that have on my current beliefs?

Whilst many of his theories may appear abstract, the assertion that there is no “correct” solution is incredibly relevant in the following models. The Integral Operating System, established by Ken Wilber, suggests a practical application of the ideas expressed throughout this article, whereas Complexity Thinking, as explained by Peter Senge, further develops this principle.

Quadrants of Thought: Ken Wilber

The Integral Approach, developed by Ken Wilber, attempts to understand how we as individuals can think “integrally”, incorporating all ways of thinking into our lives. Whilst the entire model is complex and incredibly detailed, only a small section will be analysed in this article. If you are interested in this brief summary, I strongly suggest pursuing your own personal research into the theories and approach identified by K. Wilber.

The theory of ‘quadrants of thought’ is built in an attempt to uncover and describe the patterns which link all aspects of thinking together in a coherent format.

Wilber expresses that every experience exists in all ‘4 quadrants’

The Integral Approach identifies 3 key ‘ways of thinking’: 1st-person, 2nd-person and 3rd-person (I, We and It). Stressing that every event has all 3 of those manifestations, it can be viewed through all 3 perspectives simultaneously. 

A conclusion drawn from this suggests that leaving out one of these views leads to something being omitted from the final understanding of the event.

Wilber develops this theory into 4 ‘quadrants’ (“It” is divided into “It” and “Its”) which continuously interact and intertwine with one another. Any experience can be interpreted within each of those quadrants.

“I” describes the inside of the individual and includes the “self and consciousness”. Experiences which would be identified as belonging to this ‘quadrant’ include thoughts, feelings and emotions. These are all described in the “1st-person” term. This ‘quadrant’ is referred to as the Upper Left Interior-Individual.

“It” describes the Upper-Right Exterior-Individual Quadrant, which describes what “any individual event would look like from the outside”. For example, material components and physical bodies which relate to the individual would exist within this quadrant- you could describe a thought in terms of the neurons, cells and impulses which created the thought as opposed to describing the thought itself.

“We”, described as the “inside of the collective”, is also referred to as the Lower Left Interior Cultural Collective. Wilber states that this ‘quadrant’ could also be identified as “culture”.

The final ‘quadrant’, “Its”, describes the “outside of the collective”, which would include articles such as family groups, kingdoms, galaxies and ecosystems. These systems still include internal aspects of culture and individuality, but can be described from an exterior perspective.

A good example which I used to help me understand how the ‘4 quadrants’ interacted was the issue of mental health, specifically through the use of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). This therapy aims to address anxiety and depression by talking through problems, in the belief that by breaking down large problems into smaller ones, cycles of negative thoughts are also broken.

This process can be described through the Upper-Left Interior Individual (inside the individual) by describing the thoughts and emotions that the individual may have. CBT can also be described on a neuroscientific level, through neurons and brain impulses, which would be classed as existing within the Upper-Right Exterior-Individual Quadrant (exterior of the individual).

Both Wilber and I agree that neither of those views are the correct way of describing the situation. In fact, in the topic of mental health, integrated approaches which address both the thoughts and feelings of the individual and the underlying neuroscience may be more effective at addressing the situation than a single approach could do on its own.

The ‘quadrants’ can also be used to understand the way in which we interpret the world. I know that I have a tendency to drift within a particular ‘quadrant’ when making decisions.

This identifies a few challenging questions:

How do I remain within one particular ‘quadrant’?

How is my favoured quadrant self-perpetuating in my development, ideas and in the problems created?

Wilber describes the necessity in thinking “objectively”, viewing each ‘quadrant’ with the act of exclusive observation. He believes that by achieving this, we are able to think “integrally”, continuously viewing every situation from within all ‘4 quadrants’ simultaneously.

However, this is an idea which I have found difficult to grasp. How is it possible for me to take a truly “objective” perspective on an issue, especially when I consider that my perspectives will still be influenced by a number of unconscious assumptions. Even our assumptions about whether this is to be desired is likely to be influenced by the lens through which we view it.

Despite this, Wilber’s Integral Approach offers a unique viewpoint into how we can begin to understand how we think and how we act. It also raises questions as to how our current ways of thinking influence our capacity to understand the world.

Are we making decisions based on only one part of the picture?

Complex Systems: Peter Senge

A system describes the network of interdependence between a number of key components/players, which has arisen as a result of the (complex) interactions between each of these players.

To help myself understand this concept, I use the example of a company. A company has a number of components (managers, employees, customers etc. ) who interact with each other. Through these interactions, the components become dependent on one another in order to function within the system i.e. the manager cannot function in the organisation without employees or customers, the employees cannot function without customers etc.

Complex Systems Thinking involves assessing a system in its entirety, taking all components and all interactions into consideration. This is different to a simple, linear approach, which would attempt to identify a singular, important cause. Doing so would not take the complex interrelations between the components into consideration. 

Senge’s theories suggest the world is composed of a number of interconnected complex systems

Senge stresses that the aim of Complex Systems Thinking is not, however, to understand the system itself but to understand how the most “complex problems” come about. In addition, problems are moved throughout the system so cannot be removed entirely, as an action taken in one part of the system may create a problem in another. As such, problems can only be “addressed” and cannot be “solved”.

I am struck by how similar aspects of this approach are to the other theories I have explored in this article and I have created a number of questions which may help you explore these connections for yourself:

How does complexity tie into the theories of multiple perspectives?

How can I use my understanding of complexity and of my different perspectives on the world to address problems, challenges and experiences?

If I was to view each experience as part of a complex system, how could I use my understanding of the different ‘quadrants/modes/mental models’  and my understanding of the nature of complexity together to address these experiences?

Personal Conclusions:

The multiple theories addressed in this article are only a few of many which explore the many ways in which we think, feel and experience our own unique world. I have found them useful in helping me understand my own ways of thinking, and have helped me challenge myself as well.

Perhaps this is more than a simple appreciation of different views. Perhaps this is about stepping out of our own ways of thinking, being willing to take an objective stance and looking back at ourselves as an organisation or an individual in order to fully understand how our ways of viewing the world are only one of many, and that none may be “correct” or superior over another.

In organisations and the world during these difficult times, how could this approach be useful?

In panic or challenge, how might we revert to our favourite ‘quadrant’, ‘mode’ or ‘mental model’? 

How might we feel encouraged to default to the security of what we know, despite our knowledge of what other viewpoints may bring? How might this affect our capacity to think both complexly and in an integrated fashion?

Each individual is different in the way they perceive the world and may instinctively use different ways of thinking for different areas of their life. 

Yet this does not have to always be the case.

How can I, as opposed to making definite switches between the lens through which I view the world, instead view the world continuously from an integrated perspective

What ways of thinking do I tend to switch to for different situations and how do my unique experiences influence this?

How have I associated different ways of thinking with different areas of life? How could I encourage all of these areas to become more inherently integrated and interconnected, so that I can access them at all times?

Although much of this thinking is long, arduous and confusing at times, I am also consciously aware of the benefit it has brought to me over the last few weeks. I wonder whether a whole or integrated approach to situations could help address many of the conflicts we currently face and conflicts we may experience in the future.

Through understanding the inherent quality of all ways of thinking, maybe we will also find it easier to understand others, to respect them, regardless of their views. Perhaps we might use this as an experience to learn, to understand an issue through a different way of thinking, a lens which we may have been unable to obtain on our own.

This is more than simply valuing difference- it’s about integrating difference.