This article was first published in the September 2019 International edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Every four weeks, I have a young person come and live with me for the weekend. I’ve been a respite foster carer for about three years and it’s a role I’d recommend: it’s surprising, fun and you learn a great deal about yourself, and about people in general.

One of the roles of a respite foster carer is to give a young person a chance to experience what may be a very different life to the one they know – a different mental model to work with. While there is a huge range of reasons why young people come into foster care, all of them have experienced significant disruption, and may have lost (or never have had) a broad network of supporting relationships.

Respite relationships can help to fill some of this gap by providing a different model: an alternative set of behaviours and values, or way of living your life. The idea is that having a variety of models to draw on gives you more tools to work with and makes it easier to adapt to new challenges.

There are surprising parallels to my professional life, as I’m often hired by organisations looking for support in achieving change. I may be brought in for my technical skill or past experience, but time and again I find that the most value I add comes from the fact that I can present a different model to the one they are used to.

Businesses, like people, develop habits. They have processes, practices and policies that may have met their needs for their objectives at the time and in the environment for which they were developed, but as the environment or objectives have changed the habits haven’t. Often, such legacy habits remain unchallenged because those within the business no longer even recognise they are there. The business has no other mental model to work with.

Creating a new model means engaging with the challenge of an external perspective. As a communications consultant, part of my job is to understand what is going on so I can communicate it. That means asking lots of seemingly obvious and often awkward questions, which frequently highlight where the organisation’s habits don’t match up with its intentions.

It’s an ongoing process, and healthy organisations maintain a dynamic mental model in a variety of ways. They may create connections across different areas of expertise within their organisations, such as through centre of excellence models. Or they may embed the process by shifting people between teams or creating incentives for collaboration with internal or external experts.

As well as having the chance to provide a model for the young people I look after, I find respite foster care helps me maintain my own dynamic mental model. My young friends teach me about the latest schoolyard crazes and the fears and hopes of a new generation. They make me grateful for all I have had in my life and force me to re-evaluate old habits that I perhaps should leave behind. And they are a great reminder of the value of having multiple models to draw on as the world changes.

Vanessa Richards is a corporate communications and governance consultant in Australia.