The Mental Model: Thinking like an Expert

Many companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. As experts with critical knowledge walk out the door carrying years of experience, their replacements often aren’t ready to take over, much less perform at a competent level. Wouldn’t it be great if you could teach your employees to think like your best experts?

Becoming an Expert

True expertise has three features: it must deliver performance that is consistently superior to that of other practitioners; it must lead to successful outcomes; and it must produce repeatable results. Ericsson’s research1 shows that expert-level performance is not just a result of innate talent or genetics; it can be created by years of deliberate practice and coaching.

This level of performance takes time – 10,000 hours of training over ten years is a common benchmark. In addition, it requires the guidance of a skilled coach or mentor who can give constructive feedback and introduce challenges that drive higher levels of performance. While many companies need a small core of experts acting as thought leaders to create competitive advantage, not everyone needs to perform at the expert level. Still, it takes many years for new hires to become competent performers, able to make good risk-based decisions with minimal guidance.

Fortunately, there are two practical methods you can use to significantly cut the time it takes for employees to reach a competent performance level:  eliciting mental models and coaching.

A Mental Model

An expert seems able to observe a situation, quickly recognize relevant characteristics and almost immediately recall solutions that have worked in the past or even suggest a new approach by synthesizing results from past experiences. Ericsson2 describes this performance as an ability to efficiently encode the knowledge of events and solutions using the most important domain-related concepts learned over years of practice. Rapid retrieval of solutions follows as much of the situation’s information can be filtered out. Less experienced practitioners take much longer to determine what really matters. These key concepts form the expert’s mental model.

I have found that many experts are able to articulate these key characteristics. They can also describe patterns of characteristics they have observed in both good and abnormal situations. This knowledge can be efficiently mapped and taught to less experienced practitioners; significantly reducing the years of trial and error spent trying to figure out what is important. The mental model is a useful framework, like the index for a filing cabinet. To think like an expert, practitioners need to use the model to catalog experiences in their personal knowledgebase of problems and solutions.

If the only way to really learn is by doing, is there any way to accelerate the acquisition of meaningful experience?


A coach or mentor can further accelerate competency by providing feedback as the practitioner observes and interprets information and forms conclusions and proposed actions. He or she can also share additional, less common examples that add to the mentee’s knowledgebase. But if your company is like most, your experts are already fully engaged in projects or other assignments. You can’t afford to give them time for coaching. Or can you?

Not only are experts interested in serving as coaches in the later years of their careers (it helps to combat burnout), it is actually cost effective for your company to have them do this. Instead of being assigned to a single project, an expert can coach several junior practitioners, each of whom is assigned to a project beyond their current capability. With the expert in a coaching role (this is a great opportunity for retirees), the project is guaranteed to have the best available knowledge. The mentee gains tremendous experience by doing the hand’s on work under the expert’s guidance and review. The expert is able to influence the success of several projects while accelerating the learning of several others.

This is a four-way win for the projects, the expert, the junior practitioners and the organization.

  1. “The Making of An Expert”, K. Anders Ericsson, Michael, J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely, Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2007
  2. “Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice”, K. Anders Ericsson,  2000

3 Responses to “The Mental Model: Thinking like an Expert”

  1. Eric Bruner Says:

    Nice post Jeff. I especially like the thoughts about finding coaches from experts who are serving in the later years of their careers – ever have any success with retiree’s performing this role?

  2. Jeff Stemke Says:

    At Chevron, many retirees came back as contractors. Most often this was to do specific project work. But I know that a number of them also mentored less experienced employees. We actually set up a website for retirees interested in post-retirement opportunities. Senior leaders encouraged us to highlight a need for mentoring as well as project participation. I know that other companies have set up similar retiree asset systems.

  3. Norleen Says:

    ‘Knowledge walkout’ phenomenon is what happens when employees with critical knowledge/expertise walks out the door before companies can tap into their minds. Getting retirees back as contractors for example is a good way of quickly tapping into their minds and probably setting up a knowledgebase consisting of experts’ knowledge while they are still around.

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