Let’s talk about mental models.
🤔 Why you should care about it
“The first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back […]. You’ve got to have models in your head.” - Charlie Munger, vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway.
Like investors, CTOs and engineering leaders have to make impactful decisions (technological choices, build vs buy, hiring, etc.) with limited information in a fast-changing environment.
No one taught you how to decide —> Decision-making is not a skill but the ability to use a series of tools and frameworks (models).
We’re predictably irrational —> When making decisions, we are highly subject to cognitive biases; knowledge of these biases, unfortunately, doesn’t help us make better decisions.
We trust our “experience” —> Experience is the ability to learn from past mistakes consciously. When the learning is unconscious, we’re merely making arbitrary decisions or falling into cognitive biases.
The best decision-makers use and continuously update a latticework of models to help them understand situations and solve problems. Models are internal representations of reality and offer, in essence, a simplified version of complex problems. Ideally, you should use multiple models for the same problem and check their validity in the future to learn from the results and update the models.
💡 Some mental models for engineers
Systems Thinking —> the ability to deconstruct a problem into interconnected elements, stocks and flows, to produce a function or purpose.
Theory of Constraints —> any manageable system is limited in achieving more of its goals by a small number of constraints.
Second-order thinking —> the ability to go beyond the initial impact of a decision (aka “and then what”)
Sunk costs fallacy —> we are most likely to continue an endeavour if we have already invested in it, minimising downsides and new information in the process.
Root-cause analysis —> going beyond the perceived symptom of a problem to identify the real root cause (aka the “Five whys”).
”I’m intuitive and like to make decisions on the fly. I don’t need mental models.”
—> Mental models are not antagonists to intuition but rather a way to explain it. The danger in relying only on intuition, especially without measuring the results, is continuously falling for cognitive biases.
“We can’t afford to lose time on too much thinking. We need to be agile and iterate quickly.”
—> Beware of "pivotitis"! You can be lucky from time to time, but the absence of planning always ends up in bad decisions in the long term.
“There are too many models. Which one do you use?”
—> Mental models are a trial and error, and you shouldn’t use them without documenting the reasoning and the results.