Recently, I went on a double date to an Escape Room-type establishment. We had a good time, but ended up not escaping. The last thing we had to do was to disarm a bomb by entering a code. There were no constraints other than that. We had the numbers, we tried every combination of those numbers, but none of them worked.
After our debrief, I conducted an after action review of what happened (because that’s just the kind of thing I like to do), and it got me thinking about my mental models of the task and my own situational awareness.
I had two sets of four numbers – I was arranging them, and someone else was entering them into the number pad. Each set of four numbers were arranged based on a method I probably shouldn’t discuss, but let’s just say that it makes sense. Each of the four numbers were arranged via the same method. Two other people were watching the person entering the codes (peer check), but no one was watching me arrange the code.
These sets of numbers fit nicely into my mental model that codes are sets of three or four numbers. Every combination that we entered up to that point fit exactly this mental model. Not to mention that every real-life combination lock or keypad I have ever used fit this model as well. They led us down this path, and we developed a confirmation bias. No one told us that the codes were all like this. But it was the demonstrated model, and we fell right into the trap.
Needless to say, the final code was eight digits.
Luckily for me, this was just a game. However, for employees in the field or workers back in the office, what are the possible outcomes for falling into the trap of a false mental model – Latent errors, an inadvertent operation, or an injury? The consequences of a wrong mental model was minimal for us. For others, it may be substantially higher. Bad mental models have a way of luring people into under-estimating their actual level of risk.
What Human Performance tools might have helped us? For one, having someone peer check me could be more beneficial than watching someone enter numbers into a keypad. Since we had four people, we could have divided up any way other than the way we did it and possibly seen improvement. I could have taken a step back and tried to get myself to re-evaluate my model, but we only had a minute or two, so I succumbed to a time pressure (remember error precursors). If I cannot put myself in a place to correctly use my Human Performance toolbox in a situation like this, how can we expect our employees to use theirs – especially when their mental model is wrong?
The trick is to build checks and balances into our work so we can routinely evaluate the situation. Stay tuned for more on this topic.
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