Every product manager has a unique way of thinking, approaching situations, and solving complex problems. 

I call these "unique ways" mental models. 

In this article, I will talk about

  1. What are mental models
  2. Why are they important (for product managers)
  3. The most commonly used mental models
  4. How I use them in the real world as a product manager.

What are mental models?

Mental models are a set of beliefs, processes, and systems that we consciously or subconsciously use to simplify and understand the world.

A simple way to think of mental models is:

  1. We consume information from the world
  2. We process that information
  3. Finally, we create an output, decision, or action based on the information. 

It is during step 2 that people generally apply the mental models they know.

How we think and understand the world

Mental models are deeply ingrained in our nature. They affect how we understand people and see the world.

If we use them right, mental models can be highly productive.

If we don't use them right, or if we use the wrong mental models, we make bad decisions and act on them.

Shane Parrish, in his book Mental Models Volume 1, illustrates mental models with a simple (and a universal) idea – Gravity. 

Understand mental models with the simplest example - Gravity

Let's fit gravity (and the falling pen) back into our original definition and see how that looks.

How does a falling pen and gravity fit in the larger process of making decisions.

I use mental models as guidance, not as a set way of doing things. In that sense, I like to think of mental models as sketches and process diagrams.

Sketches include the macro picture (think people stick figures) but leave room to extrapolate the details (like the kind of clothes they're wearing, their weight, gender, etc.)

Similarly, process diagrams give us a structured approach to getting started and progressing in the right direction. It helps us ask the right questions, which gets us to the next step, and then to the right conclusion.

Why are mental models important (for product managers)?

Mental models are important for good decision-making. 

They help us utilise our existing and past knowledge to be more structured while approaching life. 

They equip us with the tools required to go through the process of finding a logical answer to a complex situation.

As product managers, we're always making decisions and solving complex problems. Many other people perform tedious and critical actions based on the solutions we create. This means all our decisions should be of the highest quality possible.

And that is where mental models (should) play a critical role in our professional lives.

I've used a few mental models in my decision-making, which have helped me with the following aspects.

Holistic and Structured Thinking: 

Mental models help me organise and structure thoughts. They enable me to think broadly and ask the right questions at the right time. Hence, forcing me to think of all possible scenarios, some of which I might have otherwise missed.


Mental models have helped me systematically approach problems. I've used them to (mentally) create process diagrams, which give me a step-by-step approach to solving the toughest and the most ambiguous problems as a product manager.

Effective Communication:

Good mental models act as a shared language between team members and stakeholders. Having a universal language has made communicating ideas and solutions easy. Having a universal language has enabled me to drive alignment on my messages much quicker and easier. And that has helped me increase the quality of the group's collective output.


All of the above makes using mental models critical in my decision-making. Also, once I've used a mental model a few times, the decision-making becomes easier and more effective. At the same time, it is important to note that you will not see the benefit of using mental models in a day, week, or month. The real value unlocks when you learn which model to use, when and how. And to learn that you must consciously keep using them and improving your process.

Most commonly used mental models

A lot (100+) of mental models exist.

Here is a list of the top 7 mental models I understand well and use often and my view of what they mean. 

(Resources to learn about more models are below.)

Circle of competence: 

All of us know multiple subjects. There are some subjects we understand very well vs. some that we don't understand very well. It is important to know which is which. 

The ones we know well constitute our circle of competence, and the ones we don't know well are outside the circle. When we operate in our circle, we have all the knowledge to make the right decisions quickly. 

Once we're out of our circle, we need more information and learning to make decisions.

First principles thinking:

It is a way of thinking where we start with a problem, reverse engineer it to the most basic components, and then try to solve the same problem again. 

In the process, we remove all assumptions. Once we remove the assumptions, we're left with the foundational pieces of knowledge. And these foundational pieces do not change, and allow you to build entire solutions on top of them.

Thought experiments

Thought experiments are:

  • A way of challenging the status quo or the typical outcome.
  • Thinking of alternative outcomes.
  • Trying to predict the impact of the new outcomes.

Doing this exposes us to a broader range of possible outcomes.

Without thought experiments, we keep doing the same things and getting the same outcomes.

Second order thinking

Second-order thinking is thinking about the potential impact of a decision or action beyond only the obvious outcomes. It involves thinking beyond the first level of effects and considering the secondary, indirect, and long-term impact.


All living things respond to incentives. The incentive to stay alive. 

This biological fear is prevalent even in modern-day humans, especially when it comes to professional goals. 

My experiences and the model of incentives have taught me that people will do only the things for which they have a good enough incentive.

100% of Zero is Zero

If the value of an action is zero, no matter how many times you do it, it will stay zero. 

So instead of focusing on the quantum of the multiplicative factor, it is important to focus on changing the value from zero to something positive.

So instead of focusing on the quantum of the multiplicative factor, it is important to focus on changing the value from zero to something positive.


In part 2 of this series, I will share exactly how I use some of the above mental models to do the following core responsibilities of my job effectively:

  1. Prioritisation
  2. Ideating and innovating
  3. Cross-functional alignment

So stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you want to read and learn about other mental models, I recommend these resources from two of my favourite writers

  1. Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (~100 Models Explained) by Shane Parrish (Farnam Street)
  2. Mental Models: Learn How to Think Better and Gain a Mental Edge by James Clear (Author of Atomic Habits)

How I can help you:

  1. Fundamentals of Product Management - learn the fundamentals that will set you apart from the crowd and accelerate your PM career.
  2. Improve your communication: get access to 20 templates that will improve your written communication as a product manager by at least 10x.
Jul 11, 2023
Career Growth

More from 

Career Growth

View All

Join Our Newsletter and Get the Latest
Posts to Your Inbox

No Spam. Unsubscribe any time.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.