How Big is Your Mental Model Toolbox?

In conversations with Ethan Fletcher, we’ve mulled over taxonomies and uses of mental models.

For me, a mental model is way to understand and solve complex problems.

I think you can get better by increasing the number of mental models in your toolbox, as well a correctly applying the right models to the right problems.

Models I (try to) Utilize

See below for an attempt to loosely and quickly define the models I often find myself using to solve problems.

1. Legal Model: Law is based on logic, analogies, and advocacy. A strength is in its intellectual rigor; a weakness is its narrowness.

2. Entrepreneurship Model: Entrepreneurship is based on risk taking, problem solving, customer empathy, and organizational development. A strength is in its built in humility, innovation, and openness; a weakness is in its systems level limitations.

3. Communications Model: Communications is based on influencing people through any means possible. A strength is in its melding of creativity, psychology, and data; a weakness is that it is morally and substantively neutral.

4. Human Resources Model: HR is based on recruiting, selecting, developing, and promoting or exiting people based on their skills and values. A strength is in aligning organizational and individual needs and desires; a weakness is in its tight focus on what is happening inside of the organization.

5. Leadership Model: Leadership is based aligning the greatest strength of a high-performing individual to an organization, management team, and environmental context. A strength is in its ability to get the most out of extremely talented people; a weakness is that too heavy a focus on this model can lead to neglect of the greater organization and environment.

6. Organizational Design Model: Org design is based on creating internal coherency of mission, strategy, people, culture, tasks, and goals. A strength is its holistic approach to building organizations; a weakness is that it more about design than execution.

7. Economic Model: Economics is based in large part on incentives. A strength is that it lends itself to systems level thinking and policy development; a weakness is that it is social science that too often ignores the other social sciences (psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, etc.)

8. Political Model: The political model organizes people as ideological tribes, with the liberal conservative, and libertarian tribes being most prominent. A strength is that it accurately defines how different tribes hear and understand arguments; a weakness is that it provides less predictive power of how change and compromise occurs over time.

9. Politician Model: Politician thinking involves building a coalition that can create support for a policy, law, action, etc. A strength of this model is that it understands political chance in terms of psychology rather than rationality; a weakness to the model is that is morally and substantively neutral.

10. Evolutionary Model: Evolution is based on fitness, experimentation, and adaptation. A strength is that operates outside of volition; a weakness is that its explanatory power is more backwards looking than forwards looking.

11. Status Model: Status thinking is based on the idea that status is a prime motivator for human action. A strength is its ability to mine for actual rather than professed rationales; a weakness is that it can be difficult to disapprove and therefor risks being over applied.

In Conclusion

All of the above is a rough sketch. In a few sentences, I tried to define extremely complex subjects that I don’t fully understand.

But you get the idea.

There are numerous ways to understand and solve problems, and using the right mental models can help you solve them.

1 thought on “How Big is Your Mental Model Toolbox?

  1. Ed Jones

    Neerav, I love the term “mental toolbox”. I’m going to steal it immediately. I also love the way you designed this post; with the strengths/weaknesses fed into 3 lines for each model.

    I also use the term “frameworks”. Maybe because I focus on high school, and a fully developed model takes much longer to learn than a introductory survey can cover. Frameworks provide the start of a vocabulary, and a few basic lemmas and theorems of the domain of interest. For example, the law of supply and demand and the supporting price curve equation.

    Financial theory basics are left out of your list. Money has different values over time. Current US monetary policy pretends this is not true; and citizens accept this. We’ll see in the next decade whether free money has to be paid for (by a populace) later.

    Systems theory tells us about error accumulation and feedback loops. Is something in error due to a bias in it’s sensors? Does the error drift larger over time? Does a (too large) instantaneous correction lead to even greater error?

    Chemistry and physics tell us about the physical world around us. We become too susceptible to junk science if we’re not in tune with these. A political class unfamiliar with science can be suckered by a few specialists who are blind to the larger ecosystem.

    Not finally, but last for now, faith is a gift or curse given to some more than others. Understanding and allowing for that is something we all should minimally aim to achieve; those with more in their toolbox will find ways to use the tools of faith models to improve themselves and the communities around them.


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