In The Great Mental Models Vol. 1 (public library), Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien give us an introduction to mental models and their applicability to our work and our lives. Mental models are fundamental principles from different disciplines, such as engineering, biology, and physics, which can all work together, interlaced to help us think. The concept has become widely known in part through Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman at Berkshire Hathaway. He uses what he describes as a “latticework of mental models” to improve his thinking and decision-making.
The more mental models we have access to, the better our decision-making. If one model does not fit, we can use another. Without options, we end up thinking from only one perspective, and we may miss a bigger part of the picture that can be accessible from another point of view. In the book, Parrish and Beaubien present nine general thinking concepts. These are my favorites.
The Map is not the Territory
A map is a representation of the reality, and it is also a picture in time. A map, however, does not represent reality accurately, a fact that we tend to forget. Maps are especially useful because without them, we could never navigate the world, as it is just too complex. These representations help us take these intricate circumstances and simplify them so we can have a manageable model to support our work. Parrish and Beaubien give the example of financial statements, which are a map that companies create to give us a quick snapshot of how the company is standing. A company is made up of thousands of transactions, and it would be impossible to grasp the meaning of all of them if we did not have a tool like financial statements. The same is true for company processes and policy manuals, which are an attempt to organize the work that we do in companies.
Our work as managers is to make the best maps possible – to keep our processes, manuals, and organizational charts updated. And it is important to remember that these tools are only maps and that there is a wider reality outside them that we may be missing. Reality is not as tidy as our maps purport it to be, and as the authors point out, if we close off or ignore feedback loops that challenge our maps, we will not update them in time, which can negatively affect our decision-making.
First Principles Thinking
When solving a problem, first principles thinking involves removing all our assumptions to find the fundamental elements that make up the issue. By working with first principles, we make sure we understand the essence of a problem instead of relying on what others have told us, and we can solve it from the basics. Then with those essentials, you can create a novel solution.
To get to the root of an issue, the authors recommend using Socratic questioning and the “Five Whys” technique. Socratic questioning follows these steps:
1. “Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origin of your ideas.
2. Challenging assumptions.
3. Looking for evidence.
4. Considering alternative perspectives.
5. Examining consequences and implications.
6. Questioning the original questions.”
The Great Mental Models Vol.1, Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien
Socratic questioning is a systematic analytical tool. The Five Whys is also useful. As its name states, it is about questioning why something is, methodically, in order to arrive at the essence of a topic. We keep asking why until we reach a first principle. When we get to the basic building blocks of a solution, we can identify assumptions that are false, and we can also come up with innovative results. Our thinking is solidly rooted.
When we use first principles thinking, we can make up our own minds, and that gives us much more power. When I started working in real estate, I had no prior exposure to the industry. Everything I knew came from what others told me. They would talk about squared meters and the different construction methods, and I had no clue to what they were referring.
I knew that if I wanted to do well in real estate, I needed to educate myself, so I started to learn it for myself by reading, taking courses, researching, and simply doing the work. As I learned, I got a better grasp on the building blocks and was able to make my own decisions.
I love the thought of inversion because it is so novel, and I must admit that it is one of the most challenging concepts for me. Instead of thinking about a problem from the beginning and moving to the end, you instead start at the end and move in the opposite direction.
The authors tell the story of Florence Nightingale, who used inversion to better understand what was causing British soldiers to die during the Crimean War. She approached the problem not from how to solve it, but from how they could prevent it from occurring in the first place. By doing so, mortality among the soldiers decreased precipitously, and she opened the door to the new era of modern nursing.
We can view any problem we have from the perspective. It is much easier to avoid problems than to be great at solving them. Therefore, if, for example, you want to develop more collaboration in your company, you could think about how you could prevent collaboration and simply not do those things. You may be surprised by what you will find. You may see, for instance, that you are doing something that may be an obstacle to that cooperation you are seeking.
The great mental models are a wonderful aid to add to your toolkit. I highly recommend learning more about them and using them in your decision-making.
Parrish, Shane and Beaubien, Rhiannon. The Great Mental Models Vol.1. Latticework Publishing Inc., October 9, 2019. E-book.