Mental Models for Product Managers

BY NILS DAVIS ON MARCH 03 2017

What are Mental Models?

A mental model is any concept that helps explain, analyze, or navigate the world. As product managers, our mental models drive our decision-making, the way we communicate and collaborate with others, and how we prioritize. Without a good framework of mental models, you will be limited in all those areas.

“What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have many models. If you have just one or two, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so it fits your models. (Or at least you’ll think it does.) You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.”

Charlie Munger, from a great talk he did in 1994.

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. With 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.

As a product manager looking for ways to be more effective, having more mental models is a great start. You will make better decisions, prioritize better, communicate better, and be more persuasive. A new technique, such as an agile methodology or a better way to do a/b testing, will help you with a specific activity. The mental model tools in this talk will help you *think* better. Which helps you make better decisions about *what* to do.

What can you Take Away From this Talk?

  • Mental models can help people in positions of leadership make decisions.
  • Most of these mental models share two key characteristics
    • They are about products
    • They are not used enough
  • Often-seen groupings for mental models:
    • Templates (templates outlining product management steps to follow)
    • Categorization tools (tools for helping product managers make decisions and prioritize features)
    • Heuristics and algorithms (steps to follow in specific situations)
    • Cognitive laws (what people think vs. what they do)
  • How to apply mental models to your work as a product manager:
    • Study up on mental models. Study the ideas behind them, and apply those ideas to your PM day to day. A good list of mental models to start from is Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful by Gabriel Weinberg.
    • If you don’t have a value proposition articulated using the four part framework – category, customer, benefits, differentiators – then do it yourself. You’ll learn a lot.

But Wait, There’s More!

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of mental models that can help you in different situations. In this talk I focus on a handful that I find most useful as a product manager. They share two key characteristics:

  • They are specifically about products
  • They are not used enough

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. All that should change once you’ve watched the video (and reviewed the blog posts that goes along it at http://pmhardcore.com/2016/09/01/mental-models-product-managers-part-1/).

Nils Davis

About NILS DAVIS

20 years of practicing and studying software product management. I've learned a few things, against all odds. You can read my thoughts at http://pmhardcore.com, and hear me and Rob McGrorty talk about product management at http://alltheresponsibility.com.

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