Mental Models to Guide Product Decisions by Google Product Manager, Anurag Viswanath

A mental model is an explanation of someone`s thought process about how something works in the real world. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems (similar to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.

Alternative definition

Mental models are thinking tools or structures that are typically used in conjunction with each other to help arrive at the most rational decision based on the information available in a given context.

Think of your mind as a pattern matching machine, where mental models shape how you think, how you look at problems from different perspectives, and how you identify information that is important and ignore what doesn't.

The quality of your assessment of the situation and subsequent decision-making directly depends on the number of mental models that you have in your arsenal and on your ability to skillfully use them.

Type of Mental Models & their relevance in Product roles.

Why are they relevant?

  • In a typical workday. PMs are responsible for making a wide variety of decisions, frequently (and sometimes quickly), but don`t necessarily have all the data/information to aid with decision making/problem solving.

  • Mental models help

    • Reframe a problem and ask the right questions to look at it from a different perspective

    • Make good decisions consistently

    • Provide language to communicate the Why behind complex decisions to your team / XFN stakeholders.

    • Most importantly, help navigate the ambiguity in our jobs and reduce decision fatigue.

  • Selection of the right tool and application depends on factors like:

    • Stage of the Product Development Lifecycle

    • Decision velocity (Fast vs Slow Decisions)

    • Nature of decision (Strategic vs Tactical)

Mind Map: PM Toolbox

There is no universal mental model and what you decide to use will depend on what you are trying to do in a given situation. This could be understanding your customer's need, defining the scope of a feature, solving problems with known user pain points.

A few popular Thinking Tools / Frameworks...

  • First Principles

    • Common techniques: 5 Whys, Socratic Questioning (e.g. Clarifications, Probing assumptions and evidence, Consequences, Questioning the question etc)

  • RICE Prioritization [Where Score = (Reach Impact Confidence)/Effort]

  • Reversible (Visualize a 2 way door!)/ Irreversible Decisions (a.k. a Type 1 and Type 2 decisions)

  • Technical Debt

  • Eisenhower Matrix (2*2)

    • Urgent and Important: Tasks you should do immediately.

    • Important, not Urgent: Tasks you should schedule to do later.

    • Urgent, not Important: Tasks you should delegate to someone else.

    • Not Urgent, not Important: Tasks that you should drop.

How you can use them

Let`s take a look at a few in more detail...

1. Inversion*

A good trigger question to know if inversion is the right mental model to use: "Am I only thinking of ideal solutions or scenarios?"

Steps involved:

  • Product Goal definition: What are you trying to achieve?

  • Invert it:

    • What reasons would guarantee a failure at achieving this goal?

    • What would be the worst decision/ solution in this situation?

    • What features would destroy this product?

  • Avoid it

* This technique is important, when you`re starting a new project (or) working on a high - stakes problem where you might want to focus on specifically avoiding bad solutions.

2. 2nd Order Thinking

A good trigger question: "What would be the long-term consequences/ effects of this decision?"

- First-order thinking is fast and easy.

- Second (or nth) -order thinking is more deliberate.

Steps involved:

  • Consider a decision you have to make.

  • Start by listing down the immediate effects (1st order) of making this decision.

  • Then for each of the effects, ask yourself. "...And then what"?

3. Eigen Questions

Often the best path through a decision is to pick the right question to start with.

"A group of scientists have invented a teleportation device. They have come to you and asked for your assistance in bringing it to market. What do you do?"

Depending on which sector you fall into, you choose the way to enter the market. You need to find the right problem to solve before you enter solve mode. It's important to make sure you're solving the right problem. The great value lies in knowing what questions to ask in order to properly solve this problem. Your own questions are a good tool to help you reach your goal. It helps frame the problem and bring it back to the core, and when one or two critical questions come up, it helps you pave the way forward.

4. OODA Loop

  • Observe (Data acquisition: Product, Market, Users/Customers)

  • Orient (Strategic Planning, Market positioning)

  • Decide (Seek XFn Stakeholder feedback, Make a Decision)

  • Act (Execute and build Product/ feature, fast*).

* The key essence of the loop is to make a decision before your competitor does.

Anurag Viswanath, Google Product Manager