Magazine article The Futurist

The Use and Abuse of Models: Some Models May Be Little More Than Smoke and Mirrors. Here's How to Ensure the Viability of the Models We Use in Everyday Life and Work

Magazine article The Futurist

The Use and Abuse of Models: Some Models May Be Little More Than Smoke and Mirrors. Here's How to Ensure the Viability of the Models We Use in Everyday Life and Work

Article excerpt

From weather maps to road maps, mathematical equations to everyday language, we rely on models--miniature representations of things--to navigate our lives. They can simplify complex ideas, provide meaningful insight, and communicate difficult concepts--particularly in the professional realm, where workers have been educated and trained to employ various conceptual models for success.

Of course, all models have their limitations. Thus, we should periodically examine the efficacy of our models if we are to prudently use them to advance our understanding of an increasingly complex universe.

One of the best ways to maximize their communication efficacy is by focusing on their "outputs." For example, I reformatted the monthly operational and financial information for a nursing home to include a one-page executive summary report with a few pages of supporting graphs. The report clearly outlined revenues and expenses, and the graphs provided visual feedback of key performance statistics. To members of the nursing home board, the visuals and summary of highlights were eminently helpful--a welcome break from the pages of small type and mind-numbing statistics they were used to, yet never clearly understood.

By focusing on the outputs of the previous nursing home model, I was able to develop a new model that worked even better--a practice that can be applied across most models. In fact, most models share a number of traits that we should be aware of to get the most out of these useful aids.

Ten Traits of Models

1. Models are not reality. A city map may lead travelers to some great restaurants and historic sites. But the map is only an approximation of what the city holds; models cannot capture all subtleties of their subjects. As Alfred Korzybski, a semantic theorist of the early twentieth century, explains, just as the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing.

The point is particularly salient in the business world. When individuals in finance, accounting, consulting, or related fields put down their models to actually visit a client's plant or organization, they are reminded that reality is distinct from the conceptual tools they use. Smelling grease, feeling the vibration of heavy equipment, and seeing a product being made can reveal issues not apparent from models of industrial processes.

2. Models influence our perceptions. They aid our comprehension, but that comes with a price. Robert Pirsig, philosopher and beat-generation author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, reminds us, "We get so used to certain patterns of interpretation, we forget the patterns are there."

Using the analogy of a map of the United States, one can begin to think and act as if those imaginary state lines are real. I sometimes expect to see a huge dotted line when crossing over from Georgia to Florida.

And I tease cost accountants about their systems that calculate the cost of something to the sixth decimal place ($386.456893, for instance) and give the unrealistic impression that such precision is meaningful.

3. Models influence behavior. "When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern, we don't throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact," Pirsig says. To illustrate the point: A specialty manufacturing client asked me to evaluate a model it had been using for 40 years. At one time, the model's concepts were cutting edge, but they had grown obsolete as manufacturing changed over the years.

The company had evolved from a labor-intensive to a capital-intensive operation, and this had major implications for the underlying allocation assumptions in the old model. However, despite convincing information about the model's shortcomings, the management team held on to it. Their emotional attachment to a piece of company history was more powerful than the facts--a problem that could undermine the company's productivity and bottom line. …

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