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.
Why are product management-related mental models different?
The mental models I’m going to talk about share two key characteristics:
- They are about about products
- They are not used enough
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.
The value proposition
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?
- Who the product is for (the market)
- What the product is (the category)
- What the product does (its key features)
- Why my product is a better choice for you (the differentiators)
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.
Mental Model Categories
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:
- Categorization tools
- Heuristics and algorithms
- Cognitive laws
I’ll give a few examples of each in this post, and follow up with deeper dives in future posts.
- The Value Proposition as discussed above
- The Three Laws of Marketing Physics: For the best chance of success, your product should have 1) an Overt Benefit, 2) a Dramatic Difference, 3) a Real Reason To Believe. For more, check out my article on Doug Hall’s Three Laws of Marketing Physics, or his excellent book Jumpstart Your Business Brain!
- My V.A.L.U.A.B.L.E. rubric for product requirements. I have a podcast episode and a downloadable graphic about this approach to requirements.
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:
- Stack ranking. It rests on another critical mental model, which also underlies “agile” – this is the idea that focusing on the most important thing first is the best use of your time.
Stacking ranking is a “one-dimensional” structure. The next set of examples live in two dimensions:
Categorization tools are helpful for making decisions and prioritizing features or portfolios.
Heuristics and algorithms
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:
- It’s never an either/or decision – you can always find more options than Yes/No, Go/NoGo
- The 10/10/10 rule – think about how you’re going to feel about this decision in 10 days, in ten months, and in ten years. This rule helps you get out of the rut of taking hasty action now that you might regret later. Getting caught up in the urgency of something that might not actually be important in the long run. I illustrated the use of this rule in my article 5 tips for when your release is running late? You can push to get it out on time, even if there might be quality problems. That’s going to make you and your execs happy for a few days or weeks, but it’s going to haunt you next year when your customers stop renewing because of “your history of low quality releases.” On the other hand, if you delay the release until the quality is better – that’s a big downer today and for a few weeks, but in six months no one will remember, and in six years your company will be twice as big because all your customers renewed, citing “very high quality releases every time.”
“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).
- Customers don’t know what they want – this is an agglomeration of the results of a lot of different cognitive biases our customers have. Steve Jobs had a great quote, “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your customers. But you need to talk to them about their problems, not about “what they want.”
- Personal goals – this is another one that’s easy to say, and powerful, but hard to do in reality. It turns out that customers and users don’t care that much about the business benefits that our products provide. What they actually care about is achieving personal goals. I wrote about this idea in greater detail in The Best Way To Engage Your Audience Is To Help Them Kick Ass.
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.
Three things you can do today
You can start putting these mental models to use, and work on your own library of mental models, with these three actions:
- If you don’t have a value proposition articulated using the four part framework – category, customer, benefits, differentiators – then do it. You’ll learn a lot. This is hard, by the way. And you might find yourself struggling. That’s a good sign. If you’re struggling, imagine how your market is struggling to understand why they should buy your thing.
- If you can’t do the 10x thing for your product, get to work on that. It’s also a hard thing. Luckily, in most cases you can do the 10x against business as usual, and not against your competitors. Although if you can do it against your competitors, that’s amazingly powerful. “Not only will you have 1/10 the downtime, but you’ll implement 10x faster than with our competitors.”
- Study up on mental models. This really means studying up on ideas – ideas from different domains that focus on understanding how things work, and how things can be improved. A good list of mental models to start from is Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful by Gabriel Weinberg.