Mental models that make you a better product manager

Saurabh Rastogi
Mar 1, 2019 · 8 min read
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Among the many definitions of product management, one that has stuck with me for years is this one- “product management is the intersection between the functions of business, technology, and user experience.”

This simplistic definition is given by Martin Eriksson who is the founder of ProductTank. Eriksson adds to this definition and writes that “a good product manager must be experienced in at least one, passionate about all three, and conversant with practitioners in all.”

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By Martin Eriksson- Source

Going by that definition, the life of a product manager is always caught up between discovering, planning and execution.

Needless to say, it’s a challenging job that requires product managers to hear everyone’s opinions, understand the bigger picture and weigh-in several aspects without getting influenced by their own biases.

Therefore, one thing is certain- there is a need for good decision-making skills. And that’s not an easy job. But for every challenging job, there is a weapon or an armory of weapons. So what is the weapon for product managers?

It is Mental Models.

What are the mental models?

The Wikipedia states — “A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences.”

In simple words, a mental model is a representation of how something works for someone as per their context. Just as thoughts flow freely, mental models take different forms in different contexts, depending upon the person’s understanding of the world.

For example- the mental model of a humanitarian varies dramatically from a misanthropist. While the former loves humankind and sees the world as a place to cooperate and collaborate, the latter dislikes it and avoids society.

So why mental models?

Mental models influence our thought process, how we view and understand things. They are thinking tools that help us to assimilate information, make associations and hence ‘judge’ opportunities that are presented to us. They help to train the brain to think in a way for a given problem. So mental models help us to simplify the complex entities into understandable chunks. And by virtue of doing so, mental models assist greatly in the tough job of decision making.

A popular analogy to mental models is that they are like tools in a toolbox. So, depending upon your need, you pick the tool to achieve the result efficiently and with speed. But to achieve efficiency one must-

  1. Be aware of the tools that are available, and
  2. Be proficient in using those tools.

There is a wide range of mental models that are used in different fields. For the scope of this blog, I will be discussing only a few that are relevant to the key aspects of product management — strategic decision making and understanding your team.

Another very important aspect of product development is UX which helps in understanding users and their pain points. But I’m not including it in this blog as it’s a wide subject in itself and needs careful deliberation. If you are interested in a wider study on mental models, I recommend these posts by Gabriel Weinberg and James Clear that have meticulous research from various fields.

Strategic decision making has several challenges as it requires answers to questions you can at the best ‘guess’ for the future.

“What is relevant today, will it be relevant tomorrow?”

“How long in the future do we plan for?”

“Is the solution local or global? Are we interested in global?”

When the focus of decision is on questions requiring a definitive outcome, then decision making will suffer from uncertainty and speculation. If instead, decision making is made process driven- a process of discovery — then one can leverage a few mental models to bring some science into the mix.

Two common mental models that can help to make decision making a ‘process of discovery’ are the Eisenhower Decision Matrix and the Law of inversion.

Eisenhower Decision matrix or Urgent-Important matrix helps you in prioritizing your tasks by grouping them into urgent and important quadrants. The idea behind this model is — you should be able to identify what urgency means exactly. Does it mean that the task should be completed today? If not, is it really a pressing matter that needs your attention today?

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Eisenhower matrix

By helping determine which task belongs in which quadrant, the matrix helps to prioritize. And prioritization is the key to achieving things that need to be done by you today or later or to be entirely delegated to someone else.

The matrix is easy to use. Start with what needs your immediate attention; something which needs to be resolved immediately or at the latest, by the end of the day and has a high impact — put that in the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant. Similarly, if something is important to be achieved in the next few days, put it in the ‘important but not urgent’ quadrant. Rest follows easily.

While the Eisenhower matrix helps you to decide what to do, the Law of Inversion mental model is a powerful tool that helps you visualize what not to do in order to be successful. This mental model is based on the fact that if you know about things that can pull you down and if you figure out how to avoid them, then the chances of failure are bleak.

So, for example, if you want to decide the launch date of the product but are not too sure how it will impact your product’s success, ask yourself, “what could possibly happen if I launch my product in the market a little late?” By knowing the answer to the impact of not doing something now or 10 days later, you will be able to identify possible challenges and faultlines in your plan. Once you are aware of those, you can rework your strategy and timeline.

I would recommend you to read Ryan Holiday’s incredible book The Obstacle is the Way to better understand how the Inversion mental model makes things less complex.

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People form the backbone of any successful enterprise. Even if you are successful in the short term, if you don’t have the right people, you won’t thrive for long. That’s why it’s important that product managers make consistent efforts to understand each member of their team.

Mental models can be helpful in understanding people, their motivations, their potential, and their performance.

One of the important mental models that help product managers with people is an understanding of Emotional Intelligence. The importance of technology can tend to put the focus on IQ. But managers need to progress from IQ to EQ to help team members rise to their potential.

As, Daniel Goleman, the author who popularized EQ with his book, states, “For leaders, the first task in management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself.”

Goleman outlines four EQ traits that help with motivations, impact, interactions, and collaboration.

  1. Self-awareness — to understand and take control of your moods and emotions. When you are aware of your impulses and moods, you are better equipped to take control of them and its effect on your peers.
  2. Self-management — to manage your own work without external help. It helps you see if your motivation is intrinsic or driven by external factors like bonus or appreciation.
  3. Empathy — to understand what the other person is going through and treating them with compassion and care.
  4. Social Skills — to help understand how you interact with your team and your ability to build relationships. It helps you see if you are a people person or not.

If you are wondering where you are on the EQ scale, this flowchart can help you find the answer.

There a few mental models on performance that challenge traditional concepts of improving performance.

The model Perverse incentives break the myths around monetized incentives to improve performance. It describes how such incentives can go awry, especially in situations where outcomes can be manipulated by people who have direct control over them.

To explain this, let’s take a common example of a financial incentive for those who would take the most number of training and certifications. The idea behind such an incentive could be to prepare the team for an upcoming project that needs a new skill. But the financial compensation as a motivator may not result in the desired outcome of people actually learning the skill. It’s possible that people might just do the training for the reward and not take the training seriously. As a result, on paper, it will appear that the team is prepared, but the reality would be different.

Another model that helps with performance and potential is the Peter Principle.

Created by Dr. Lawrence Peter, the principle states “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”?

The model helps to detect early signs of stagnation, lack of motivation and fall in performance.

Consciously working with mental models can be a little overwhelming initially, especially if you are new to them. But like every tool, the more you practice, the better you can become. But there is also a paradox — since a mental model is a ‘viewpoint’, there’s a possibility that as you gain proficiency, it might block your worldview. So the best way to overcome such handicap is to continuously study more mental models and revise them against each other. Keeping an open mind is the best way forward.

I wrote this blog for our Medium Publication- Unboxing Product Management. The publication is a weekly column Quovantis to share their learning and knowledge with the world. If you liked reading the blog, clap your heart out and help others find it.

Unboxing Product Management

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