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Making Smarter Decisions with Mental Models by Andy Ayim "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 15 March 2021 True #mtpcon, #mtpcon London 2019, Andy Ayim, First Principles, Mtpcon London, Premium Content, second order thinking, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 843 Andy Ayim speaking at Mind the Product London 2019 Product Management 3.372
· 4 minute read

Making Smarter Decisions with Mental Models by Andy Ayim

In this keynote from #mtpcon London, product leader and business builder Andy Ayim talks about how mental models can help us to make different types of decisions. And how, by using specific frameworks, we can focus on solutions that aren’t immediately obvious.

Key points:

  • Mental models can help us to make different types of decisions
  • By using specifics frameworks, we can focus on the solutions which aren’t immediately obvious
  • First-principles thinking gets you to think about the individual components of a problem
  • Second-order thinking looks at the unintended consequences of our actions
  • Inversion gets you to think back through a problem

Andy begins by talking about his work with Backstage Capital, a fund that invests in startups which have been founded by the LGBT community, people of colour, and people from low-privileged backgrounds. It has an inclusion agenda that focuses on who is not in the room – who’s not able to influence decisions or build products.

Someone not in the room at the time of Andy’s talk is his two-year-old daughter, and this leads Andy to talk about how we learn.

Children, he says, are naturally curious. They learn about the world, and build their view of it, by playing and singing. This, he says, is their way of using mental frameworks, to understand the world they live in.

Children learn lots about the world through activities such as playing and singing
Children learn lots about the world through activities such as playing and singing

One way Andy and we, as adults, learn and make decisions, is by using mental models.

All mental models share three components:

  1. They challenge you to keep things simple by implying complex phenomena
  2. They help you to reframe problems
  3. They aren’t a silver bullet, but rather an aid to help you think differently, not necessarily make better decisions

These are some of Andy’s favourites:

First-Principles Thinking

When you’re faced with the problem ‘how would we solve this more efficiently, if we started from scratch?’. This usually means trying to understand the situation or context better so you can break it into pieces.

A first principle is a basic truth that cannot be deduced any further. To apply first-principles thinking you need to question your assumptions of things. To do this, you can ask yourself these questions:

  • What are we sure is true?
  • What do we know has been proven?
  • What are the facts?
Andy references Elon Musk when talking about first principles thinking
Andy references Elon Musk when talking about first principles thinking

Second-Order Thinking

This type of thinking isn’t just about what we do. It’s also about the consequences of these actions and being able to anticipate them. To explain this, Andy uses an example – the AIDS epidemic of the 90s.

During this epidemic, millions of people were dying every year. Large companies were making money from the drugs needed to tackle the crisis – drugs sold at a rate that was unaffordable to those who needed it.

Big companies and governments had to lobby for these drugs to be provided at more affordable prices in order to control the crisis. But, even though the drugs were being provided, the intended effect on treatment rates never happened. The problem was no one had taken second order thinking into consideration – the unintended consequences of their actions. People now had the drugs but didn’t have clocks to time their treatment doses properly.

By using second-order thinking we can anticipate consequences like these. We need to ask ourselves what is the most likely impact of our actions – while not trying to anticipate every single result.

This type of thinking is especially useful when we’re trying to make decisions against short-term gains vs long-term results. We can work out what the actual benefit of each decision might be rather than only what is directly in front of us.


This technique gets you to think backwards. Rather than brainstorming ideas to solutions, it’s about mapping all the risks so you can better reduce their likelihood.

If you visualise the worst things that can go wrong, then you have more choices in how you avoid them.

Pre-mortems can help us use this type of thinking to plan our product roadmaps. We do this by asking ourselves what could the end results of this project be if it didn’t work out as planned? At the start of each project, we can list the risks we can eliminate or the dependencies we can manage.

Inversion is about finding the unhappy path and planning for the opposite.

How to get Started Using These Models

Here are five ways to get started:

  1. Link mental models to outcomes
  2. Don’t concern yourself with finding a better solution, just look for different ones
  3. Start small – take just one mental model and apply it
  4. Write your learning down – keeping a short decision log
  5. Stick with it – this doesn’t happen overnight

Once you get familiar with these tools, you can start making different types of decisions as well as better ones!

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