Mental Models for Product Managers – Part 1

The importance of mental models

Knitted Brain Hat

Model of the brain – in yarn (CC 2.0 by Linden Tea)

There’s been an explosion – at least in my feed – of folks talking about the importance of having a lot of good mental models to help you make better decisions.

A lot of this goes back to a talk by Charlie Munger at USC Business School in 1994. He’s the other old white guy who works with Warren Buffet at Berkshire Hathaway making lots of high-payoff investments. Munger said their “latticework of mental models” is one of their core competitive advantages.

What is a mental model?

“Any concept that helps explain, analyze, or navigate the world.”

I’d also add, specifically

  • That helps you make better decisions
  • That guides you on how to take better actions

Mental models are like tools in a toolbox. If you have only a few tools, you can only solve a few kinds of problems. Like the famous saying – If you only have a hammer, then you have to treat every problem as a nail. If you have a full toolbox you have a lot more flexibility and subtlety about how you can go after problems. And tools that aren’t quite up to the job is almost as bad as not having the right tools. You can’t fix a sink if you don’t have some plumbing tools.

Mental models can also help compensate for your own limitations. We all have limitations in the way we think which mental models can help address. They can be like a mental checklist, or like a jig or fixture. Things we know we should do but forget, or things we normally don’t think about but know we should.

Mental models comprise different types of things: heuristics, “cognitive laws,” templates, categorizations and categorization strategies. And there are hundreds if not thousands of mental models. Munger says “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly‑wise person.”

Mental Model Examples

Some general purpose mental models are very useful for product managers. This short list is taken from a fantastic list of mental models by Gabriel Weinberg:

  • Cognitive bias – and all the particular cognitive biases that arise in different situations.  “Tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgments.” (See list of cognitive biases.)
  • Ask Why Five Times – Arguing from First Principles .  “A first principle is a basic, foundational, self-evident proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption.”
  • Scientific Method .  “Systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
  • Order of Magnitude.  “An order-of-magnitude estimate of a variable whose precise value is unknown is an estimate rounded to the nearest power of ten.”

You’re probably familiar with these and many more like them already.

Mental models for product managers

What about mental models for Product Managers specifically? There are quite a few mental models about products and making them successful. Too many to cover in this post, which is already getting long, so stay tuned for the next post.

What mental models do you use and depend on for getting your job done?

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