Building An Arsenal Of Mental Models

Building An Arsenal Of Mental Models

Building An Arsenal Of Mental Models

Now that you know how mental models help build kick ass products, how do you go about acquiring mental models? Mental models are everywhere. The good news is that you’ve been acquiring them your whole life. Every class that you’ve taken, every seminar you’ve attended, every book or blog post you’ve read all have mental models supporting them. However, just because you’ve heard about a topic, doesn’t make it actionable. You too can turn information you’ve acquired into an arsenal of knowledge that can be leveraged to think through hard problems.

Creating Your Mental Model Inventory

  1. Start With What You Know

You’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge up until this point in your life. It’s time to put it to use. Make a brain dump of all the concepts that you’ve learned over the course of your life. There’s no need to be elegant about it – use your note taking program of choice (I use Evernote or Xmind) and list as many concepts as possible. The main objective is to discover everything you’ve spent time learning. After you’re finished, you can put the list aside for now as we’ll revisit it later.

  1. Identify Areas You’d Like To Know

Everybody has a list in the back of their mind of things that they want to learn; The list that you’re hoping to get around to “if I only had more time”. This list is important as it embodies the topics that you perceive as valuable but do not currently know. We’ll call this your backlog of mental models. At this point, you will have a list of all the models you know and don’t know. It should look something like this:

mental models brain dump

  1. Group Like Models

At this point, you should have a list of things you think you know and things you want to know. The next task is to group the mental models under categories. The purpose behind using categories is it’s easier to recall categories than specific mental models when thinking through things. In its most simple form, it’s the high level index of possible solutions to a given problem. It’s a lot quicker to run a category of mental models past a problem than every model you can think of. A sample model might look something like this:

mental models grouped

At this point you might have an overwhelming list of models. Do a quick breeze through them and consolidate where you can. This will be a continuous effort as a lot of the models you’ll encounter when learning new models will be a model you already know but expressed in a new way or have overlapping concepts.

  1. Actionable Inventory

Having bullets that don’t have gun powder in them is useless. The same concept applies to your mental model arsenal. To pump gun powder into your arsenal, you have to make the models actionable. To be able to do this, you’ll have to spend time thinking through each model you’ve learned. Next to each model, summarize the model in your own words. It’s important that you don’t just understand the concept on a surface level, but that you’re able to synthesize it into your own understanding. Make note of models where you’re having a tough time doing this and research the model until you’re able to put it into your own words. Each of your mental models should now look like this (I used Xmind for this):

Mental Model Description

  1. Using Your Inventory And Updating As You Go

Next time a problem presents itself or you need to creatively think about a situation, run it past your categories of mental models, noting which categories apply to the situation. After the categories are identified, zoom into each category and note the models that apply. An example of a situation would look something like this:

Problem you need to solve: Your stakeholders don’t understand why users are not using x new feature. You’d pull out your themes as below to evaluate what theme can best help explain the issue.

Mental Model Categories

Zoom into the theme(s) that can best help you describe and leverage a model within the theme. Here we decide to leverage a design theme – specifically the execution / evaluation action cycle from Donald Norman’s book: The Design of Everyday Things. Leveraging this mental model, we can easily describe to our stakeholders how we’re not meeting users’s goals because we’re not delivering some parts of the cycle.

mental model zoom in

What If No Models Fit The Situation?

There will be situations when neither a specific model nor a combination of them fully apply to the situation. In these cases, you’ll need to explore to discover new mental models that would be a better fit. A good place to start would be your backlog of mental models. Do any of them seem like they would be a good fit? If so, go back to step 3 thru 5 and add the model to your inventory.

Your mental model arsenal should be a living document that is constantly updated, expanded, and consolidated. You’ll learn new concepts that might negate old concepts. That’s ok, in fact, it’s what you want! The arsenal is the physical manifestation of your knowledge and the process of thinking through the models makes them actionable. Keep amassing and refining your arsenal and you’ll see that unique solutions will occur as you synthesize your arsenal to the problems that you confront.


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Also published on Medium.

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