In part 1 I introduced mental models and some reasons they are important. And I provided a few “general purpose” examples. In this part we dive into what you really came here for – product management-specific mental models.
The mental models I’m going to talk about share two key characteristics:
We have some great mental models in product management. But we have not been doing a great job of using them to help us make better products. While I think a lot of us have intuitive ideas about “how to think about” product management, my observation is that these mental models are not as widely used as they should be.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t even heard of these mental models. And if you’ve heard of them, you may not know how to use them.
For example, one of the powerful mental models is “the value proposition.” I’m sure you’ve heard this term. It’s very easy to say, and rolls off the tongue. Yet in my experience many product managers don’t know that a value proposition has a specific structure. A properly constructed value proposition is extremely compelling to prospects. But a “value proposition” that doesn’t have the four specific components of this structure is significantly less powerful.
What are the four components?
This is the classic framework from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. I’ve written about value propositions at greater length in A Weak Value Proposition Is A Symptom, Not A Disease.
The value proposition is a mental model in the form of a template. It gives you a structure for your thinking and research. I like using good templates. Of course they are used throughout our domain – a user story is a very simple template, a Jira issue is created using a template. And most product management tools are essentially a database of items created by filling in templates.
But there are other types of mental models. While categorization itself is a type of mental model – the idea that different topics or pieces of information fall into different buckets – it’s not a product management-specific concept. But let’s use the categorization mental model to help organize some more product management-specific ideas.
One possible grouping is:
I’ll give a few examples of each in this post, and follow up with deeper dives in future posts.
Just because you have a template it doesn’t mean your job is done. Filling in the templates is often extremely difficult. For example, articulating a meaningful Dramatic Difference or “differentiator” portion of the value proposition is usually difficult. (This is especially true if your product is really “a solution looking for a problem.”)
Categorization is not a product-specific concept, but there are some categorization tools that are specifically about product. Here are a few of my favorites:
Stacking ranking is a “one-dimensional” structure. The next set of examples live in two dimensions:
The BCG - or Share Growth - Matrix shows a set of products laid out based on their market share and the growth of the market.
This prioritization matrix from Accept360 lays out features based on their value (vertical access) and their cost (horizontal access, starting from zero at the right)
The Gartner Magic Quadrant chart lays out products or offerings based on their "vision" and their "ability to execute" - companies with an interesting vision and high ability to execute are considered Leaders.
The "Eisenhower Matrix" helps you with prioritization - tasks in the Important but Not Urgent quadrant are where you should aim to spend most of your time.
Categorization tools are helpful for making decisions and prioritizing features or portfolios.
Technically, heuristics and algorithms give you steps to follow in specific situations. But often the steps involve reconceptualizing the situations, which puts them squarely in the province of mental model.
For example, there are some great heuristics in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Decisive that can help us make better decisions. The book is a great and entertaining read. And Teresa Torres has written a number of great articles putting a product management spin on them.
I’m going to touch on two of their mental models about decision making:
“Rules of thumb” are another set of good heuristics that represent useful mental models. in my Rules of Thumb series I wrote about a few I use.
These mental models are rooted in the way people really think and make decisions (as opposed to how they think they do).
I’ve only begun to touch on mental models for product managers – most of these I’ve described with a few sentences.
I haven’t even talked about some of the valuable larger frameworks of mental models (although I do have blog posts about some – like Kathy Sierra’s “badass” approach).
And I haven’t mentioned anti-models – mental models that are actively dangerous for product managers (despite their ubiquity).
So, there will be more coming in future blog posts. But, in the meantime, I want to make sure you have some actionable, concrete advice for making use of these ideas.
You can start putting these mental models to use, and work on your own library of mental models, with these three actions:
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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