What are mental models? Why does it seem that some people possess worldly wisdom that enables them to solve complex problems with solutions that are groundbreaking yet beautifully simple? Steve Jobs was able to produce a stream of products that synthesized technology, humanities, and the arts. Charlie Munger built an investment empire across a variety of industries that are too complex for a team of analysts, let alone a single man, to successfully conquer. What was their secret sauce? How can you get some of it?
A Short Story On Mental Models
It was 2002. I was in the 11th grade sitting in my pre-calculus class. I listened to Mr. Jacob’s lecture on imaginary numbers intently as my best friend Andrew was sound asleep on his desk next to me. I memorized each problem step by step, dissecting each problem to its core, preparing for the next test. The results were posted. Like most of my high school career, Andrew received a perfect score while I received a mediocre B. WTF!??? He was sleeping the whole time; what was the difference?
It took me a while to understand the difference. I tried to memorize the execution of solving each problem while Andrew spent his few lucid moments learning how the concept fit into his mental model of math as a whole. While I was focused on how to recognize what step I was on so I can execute the next step, Andrew was synthesizing the current concept, leveraging past concepts to come to the solution. So what? Everybody knows it’s better to learn the concept right? No. I’m amazed how many times in business I’ve come across people who view problems in a vacuum. A once in a lifetime phenomenon that only has one solution. Instead of viewing the problem from multiple perspectives, like high school me, they would jum into the execution phase, following some learned set of actions until a good enough solution resulted.
What Exactly Is A Mental Model?
Herbert Simon is recognized as one of the founding fathers of mental models. He was one of the first to frame mental models stating:
A mental model is a representation inside your head of an external reality. – Herbert Simon
Simon understood that mental models were the core principles to the solutions within a given field. John T. Reed (author of Succeeding) further explains Simon’s concept:
When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles. – John T. Reed
Mental models are not constricted to any particular field. Expanding on Simon’s views, Charlie Munger states that having multiple mental models across a variety of disciplines is a requirement:
What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head. – Charlie Munger
I’m pretty sure Munger time traveled into the future, read my story, and went back to write that quote. Now that you understand what a mental model is, lets look at it from a product perspective.
Product Management Mental Models
You’re probably very familiar with this image. It’s become the unofficial logo of Product Management. Behind the image there’s a perfect expression of how mental models work – the synthesizing of the principles of business, tech, and UX to create this field we call Product Management. By learning the models behind each of the components, you’ll build yourself a strong base for your everyday PM needs.
An example set of Product Management Mental Models with clickable links (I will be posting my full list in the future):
The mental models should be viewed as filters in your mind. As a new problem emerges, you should run it through the models, choosing the model(s) that best fit the situation. Sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s many. Once in a while, none of the models match the problem – you must synthesize multiple models together, find new models, or create one yourself. The first step to leveraging mental models is building your own arsenal. Go forth and build, my next post will share how I build and inventory my mental models.
Here are some links if you want to read more on Mental Models: