Mental maps guide our behaviors. Without them we can’t act. When ever we face a need to act based upon a specific context, we pull out the appropriate map, we then recruit an identity, create some emotions, and then act. For example, if we arrive at a football game, we see the excitement, we feel the energy of the crowd and we pull out the mental map that recruits an identity of “I am a football fan.” We then feel the emotions associated with this identity that then guides our cheering, forming the wave, jumping up and down, etc. Then if later that day I go to church, I use a different mental map for religious worship based upon the identity of “I am a a believer,” that then leads me to be reverent, kneel, prayer, and be more introspective – an entirely different set of activities. We are really good always pulling out the right map based upon the context and recruiting the right identity that guides our emotions and actions.

When we enter a new and unfamiliar context for which we don’t have an existing map and identity, we then create a new map to guide our behaviors in this context to create a new identity. For example, several years ago I left my job on Wall Street to become an entrepreneur, something that was very foreign to me. I left behind my identity of “I am a banker,” to create a new one called “I am a medtech co-founder and entrepreneur.” It took me quite some time to really understand what this new mental map and identity required in terms of behaviors and emotions.

Recently, I caught up with a friend of mine, Ryan Sysko, who was the co-founder and CEO of a successful digital therapeutic company, called WellDoc. It  that was the first to get FDA clearance to and that delivers digital diabetes solutions through physicians, health plans, pharma companies, and digital giants like Samsung.

We discussed one of my previous blog topic on why pharma companies are partnering with digital health firms, and he had some very interesting insights that mirror the concepts on mental maps and identity that we outlined in our previous two books, Tension, and Solving for Why.

New digital technologies are enabling digital therapeutic  companies to create entirely new identities and related behaviors that were unthinkable before the advent of the first iPhone eleven years ago.  What is constraining these organizations behaviors are their existing mental maps and models that constrain and limit their identity so narrowly as to block them from reinventing themselves.

Big pharma has an existing mental map that have created successful identities in the past. These mental maps have been guided, directed, and shaped by laws, regulation, tradition, economics, technology, physicians, health plans and patients. These successful mental maps created an identity that said “I am a drug company that only makes physical drugs for a specific diseases.” The mental map and identity imposed the following constraints:

  • We only deal with a very narrow, specific set of symptoms of a specific disease
  • We only have relationships with physicians and health plans, never patients
  • We can’t make claims about anything beyond the pill that we make even if there is evidence it can help (i.e. sleep, exercise, diet, etc.)
  • We don’t use digital tools and engagement for patients because the patient is not our customer, our customer is the physician and the health plan
  • We never get directly between a physician and their patient, although we do do DTC advertising
  • We don’t take direct risk and exposure to patient behavior change, behavior change is the doctors job
  • We can’t deal with comorbidities of the specific disease like mental health since are aren’t a mental health company or mental health service provider

Digital health innovations have now eliminated all of these constraints. This means that pharma companies need to create new mental maps based upon the possibilities enabled by these new digital technologies. This means they need to create a new identity as well that looks more like “I am a total health solutions company that addresses the whole patient in a personalized, direct manner that transforms the practice of medicine.”

This is a pretty bold new identity. It requires an entirely new and different mental map. It also, enables and requires the other stakeholders that pharma companies deal with to also create new identities and new mental maps. But such is the nature of disruptive innovation. Only those organizations that can transform themselves by creating new mental maps and identities survive.

For more on mental maps, check out my book on Amazon: Tension: The Energy of Innovation.