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.

The Index Card Summary of “Wait: the Art and Science of Delay”

There is a famous military mantra that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, thoughtfully unpacks the benefits of taking one’s time and the contexts in which it is most important.

The Index Card Summary

Partnoy’s key takeaways boil down to three points:

  1. We should wait as long as possible to act, to ensure we have the maximum possible information.

  2. To be able to wait as long as possible, you need to be able to execute quickly.

  3. Doing things quickly comes with a cost to quality, which you can mitigate by becoming and expert.

Partnoy provides the reasoning, methods, and frameworks for taking on the challenging task of slowing down to achieve better results.

1. Why wait?

Because it is optimal. Partnoy posits that humans are hardwired to react quickly, as part of our inbuilt fight or flight instincts. Modern society taps into this wiring, tempting us to react instantly to its many demands. Yet we are often better off resisting both our biology and our technology. Waiting as long as possible ensures that you have the maximum possible information available to inform your next decision.

2. Making time to wait means executing quickly

In the ideal world, you would spend much less time executing and re-executing. You would optimize outcomes by minimizing execution time. OODA is an effective framework for developing a strategy without reacting too hastily.

The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) framework requires the decision-maker to observe the changing environment and process the disorder occurring before deciding how to act. One can act fast without necessarily acting first. Act too quickly, and you may provoke a problem that would have otherwise gone away. Further, if you spend too much time acting (e.g. building a presentation), you have less time to observe (e.g. calibrate the actual project needs and goals).

3. To keep quality high during fast execution, become an expert

Novices and experts are two extremes on the experience spectrum. Whereas experts can act quickly based on the muscle memory of prior experience, novices may be better off not acting at all. For example, time pressure does not impact grandmaster chess players in the way it impacts novice chess players. Under time constraints, grandmasters make few mistakes whereas novices make many.

However, there are times when even experts should wait. Importantly, novel circumstance can still arise in one’s sphere of expertise. Medical professionals face this challenge often.

The considered take

Partnoy is one of the few voices in the modern world telling us to wait. We’re in an era of high-speed internet, one-click orders, two-day shipping, high-frequency trading….the list goes on. Partnoy counters our culture by making the case that waiting is optimal.

I appreciate that Partnoy makes the important distinction that artful delay and procrastination are not the same thing. This means that you need to define what “waiting as long as possible” means in your own context. In many businesses, on time is late and early is ontime. So, for example, waiting until the final hour to submit an application online, and then hitting a computer glitch, could leave you out of luck.

Partnoy also underscores that rushing when you are not an expert will not produce good results — making it all the more important to accurately assess where you are at in a skill set and allocate execution time accordingly. So how does one become an expert? A few ideas:

  1. Spend a lot of time thinking through how to do something in a deliberate manner, so that when the time arrives, you can execute quickly.

  2. Use checklists, which can force you to pause, be more systematic, and reduce errors. 

  3. Pursue deliberate practice so that you are trained in the skill you care about.

As Partnoy summed it up, the essence of modern intelligence may be knowing when to think and act quickly and when to think and act slowly.

The Index Card Summary of “The First 90 Days”

For those who just started new jobs this past summer or fall, you may be closing in on the end of your first quarter. As someone who came from a liberal arts background and spent college summers working at non-profits or on my own initiatives, I recall my first corporate job being something altogether different than any setting or challenge I had encountered to date. Standing on the threshold of my first office, I realized that the system I was joining was a whole new kettle of fish. Whether you’re joining a new sector or a new company, the way you prepare and get smart for a new role is distinct to the business context and requires some focused, diligent attention. This summary walks through the key actions for leading your own transition.

Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter gives guidance on how to position yourself for success in a new role. While the target audience is new managers, he identifies challenges common to all new employees and provides a structure for recognizing and addressing the types of challenges that come with differing organizational contexts.

First off, why 90 days? The author posits that the first quarter is a good time to get judged, as people’s impressions and perceptions are starting to solidify. The faster you can get up to speed and move from a “transition” period to having ongoing positive impact, the better. Watkins recommends taking the following steps.

The index-card summary

  1. Out with the old assumptions and habits, in with the new skills

  2. Understand your business context

  3. Manage up: show your boss you can achieve their priorities

  4. Collaborate with your team

  5. Identify influencers

The detail

  1. Out with the old assumptions and habits, in with the new skills

    Leave behind old assumptions and habits tied to your old role. A new company has its own culture, dynamics, and norms. Focus on attuning your mindset and your skillset to your new role. Recognize that you will need to perform at a higher standard than your last role.

    To begin, construct a learning agenda in which you identify competencies to upgrade and skills to gain. Develop a learning schedule in which you summarize your learning needs. Then, figure out the best way to learn, including questions that you need to ask. Create a support network with mentors to support your transition.

  2. Understand your business context

    Identifying the business context you are operating in will aid you in identifying what will be valued in terms of activities and outcomes. Common business situations include Startup, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment, and Sustaining Success — or STARS. Each situation will have a different emphasis on learning vs. doing, offense vs. defense, etc. and, thus, will differ in what must be done to secure an “early win”.

  3. Manage up: show your boss you can achieve their priorities

    You will need to establish credibility with your new boss. This means taking on your boss’ objectives and definitions of success as your own. You can then define goals relevant to your role and find opportunities to demonstrate your ability to achieve success by pursuing a few early wins.

    As you identify a path forward, it is your responsibility to keep your boss posted and ensure that expectations are communicated. No surprises is the best policy in working with your boss. You must also adapt to your boss’ style rather than assuming you can change them. Your relationship with your boss is your responsibility. By aligning on your priorities and defining your strategy, you can create a shared vision and establish a clear direction of progress.

  4. Collaborate with your team

    You must align you strategy and vision with your teammates. Assess their strengths and weaknesses, in a non-judgemental fashion. Establish the right structure for speed and effectiveness. Identify personal and team timelines for analysis and action planning. Don’t make decisions before you are ready.

    Develop a common language of communication. This will speed up action and remove misunderstandings.

  5. Identify influencers

    In an ideal scenario, you win the respect of people whom your boss respects. Beyond your immediate teammates, identify and understand the influence of indirect stakeholders, who may impact your goals.

The quick take

I like that this book focuses on what is in your control, and the importance of being proactive as well as receptive to the new environment. It’s worth underscoring that the most important thing you control is your mindset. What I am less convinced by are the tactical tips about quickly identifying all facets of success and converting them into an action plan. Watkins makes it all sound easy. The reality is, it isn’t always easy. In a new work environment, particularly the large ones, I’ve often found my senses on overload, not knowing what’s true vs. what’s marketing, and finding advice from different veterans inconsistent or even at odds. In the end we all have to make our own foundations by choosing how we define success in the context of our careers, beyond just a single job.