Top 10 mental models for the workplace

 Source: Litmos
Source: Litmos

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau

Mental models allow us to simplify our complicated world. They are abstracted truths that, in finding the through-line of many instances, despite losing detail they are actually more true than any individual instance. They are powerful drivers of our behavior that help us quickly choose what to focus on and how to make decisions. So it’s worth taking a conscientious look at the ones that have baring on our day-to-day, and consider how we want to employ them.

Based on the Farnam Street list of 109 mental models, I have selected the top 10 that I have most often needed to revisit in innovation and strategy consulting work. They roughly fall into the categories of planning, process, and people – the raw ingredients of any initiative or organization. Below is a brief description of each, and why they are perennially relevant.

1. Planning

Whether planning for your company or your client, managing complexity and collecting the right level of input to make informed decisions is a critical skill. And it is also a complex thing to try to optimize. Here are a few mental models that help guide my focus and sense check my thinking.

The map is not the territory

A map is intentionally designed to be a reduction of what it represents, and is not to be confused with a full representation of reality. As George Box famously noted, “All models are wrong but some are useful.” To preserve the utility of maps, we must guard against over-simplifications that loses touch with reality. For example, average is a myth when it comes to clothing or car seats – acknowledging this has spurred the universal design movement, which demands a much deeper understanding of users than summary data can provide. Which leads us to our next mental model…

Seeing the front

The military has a leadership norm of “personally seeing the front” before making decisions. When decision-makers establish a ground truth first-hand, they avoids losing touch by over-relying on data that fails to capture the nuances of real life. As Jared Belsky would put it from a business leader’s perspective, “Get out of your ivory tower and into the stores.” Then you can test and validate your ideas, assumptions, and plans directly.

Second-order thinking

Second-order thinking involves thinking beyond the immediate effects of an action to the knock-on effects. This kind of holistic thinking needs to be balanced against the typical interpretation of Occam’s razor, which posits that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. Occam’s razor is not a call to give up critical thinking, but does call us to put more weighting on simpler explanations.

Tendency to overgeneralize from small samples

Overgeneralization occurs when we take a small number of instances and come to a general conclusion from it, even if we have no statistically sound basis for it. This is tricky to navigate if you are in situations with naturally low numbers of instances. In these cases, I try to validate my conclusion from multiple angles, and am highly open to updating my thinking as new information becomes available.

2. Process

A plan cannot manifest without an effective process to execute it. At the same time, process has many opportunities for minor or major misalignment that can limit both team outcomes and progress towards larger goals. Below are several key process-related mental models that, if applied well, can drive task success, systems improvement, and individual growth.

Feedback loops

A feedback loop occurs when an input originates from within the system itself, not from outside the system. Feedback loops can be positive, negative, or neutral, and can often be greatly impacted by any one actor who decides to intervene by changing one of the key inputs. This means that you can change the course of a relationship, with a coworker or client, using the right strategic interventions. It’s also why first impressions matter so much, as that impression is easily reinforced.

Regression to the mean

In a normally distributed system, while you might observe deviations from the average, performance will tend to return to the average with an increasing number of observations. This is most visible day-to-day with unconscious habits. Say you want to break your habit of checking e-mail too often. You may make a short-term effort to look at e-mail less, but unless you learn a whole new habit (say, by having e-mail blackout periods or switching to Slack), you may find yourself drifting back to sub-optimal behavior patterns.

Tendency to want to do something

Most humans have the tendency to need to act, even when no action is needed or additive. Action can give the illusion of productivity and progress, perhaps shielding our ego from the fear of failure. At the end of the day, though, we are better off focusing on results. Which links to our next mental model…


Velocity is how fast something gets somewhere — speed plus direction. An object that moves two steps forward and then two steps backward has moved with speed but with no velocity. Focusing on velocity can be a tricky disposition to manage in light of its competing mental model “Tendency to want to do something.” Thus, if you are uncertain as to whether actions will be additive, it is important to try to take considered actions that produce data that inform whether you are moving in the right direction.

3. People

All the planning and process in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans without getting people on board with you. Working well with people is most of the magic of successful initiatives. The following mental models are two considerations to keep in mind when getting in the flow with your team or client.

Influence of stress

Stress causes both mental and physiological responses and typically amplify our biases. Stress can also cause us to be hasty and revert to unhelpful habits. Thus, it is important to be sensitive to people’s stress levels, and to try to either reduce stress or introduce conditions that improve the quality of team engagement during stressful circumstances.

Circles of competence

Circles of competence are niche areas of specialization that people develop. Understanding your circle of competence enables you leverage your strengths, identify opportunities for improvement, and learn from others. Many a successful CEO has cited this as a top skill that enabled them to manage a global company. The same is true on a micro level, within a small team.

Leveraging mental models

The world can often seem very complicated because, well, it is! But not all of that complexity is relevant. Being able to more quickly filter out the noise and cut to the heart of the matter is a critical skill in an world of increasing information density. The mental models above provide tools to help evaluate plans and processes, and optimize how you work with people.