The Secret Product Manager Handbook
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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.

(This is the first of two parts – the second part is Mental Models for Product Managers – Part 2.)

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?

About the Author nils

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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  • My good friend is a product manager. We talked a lot about his daily problems (wagon of user stories, C level management expectations, or strategies to gain project approval).

    He used vocabulary similar to the list of G.Weinberg but unaware of the Mental Models approach to thinking. I’m UX designer interested in seeing all the important point of views on the problem. Studying MMs by myself helped me to have deep productive conversations and even uncover perspectives he was not aware of.

    I founded a blog devoted to Mental Models, in which I explain 1 of them on a weekly basis through the simple sketch. You can check them here: whatdoesntchange.com

    This resource will help you to reason from first principles and lead efficient conversations. I would welcome any feedback on this.

    • nils says:

      Viktor – thanks for your great comment and the link to your mental models site! I’ve taken a look at a few of them and you do a great job of explaining and illustrating them.

      Are there other mental models that you think are particularly valuable for product managers that I didn’t mention? I’d be happy to do a follow up post (and link to your blog).

      Nils

  • […] some earlier articles and in a talk I gave at a local product management meetup, I’ve shared about the […]

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