Mental Models for Engineers and Managers 🎲
My personal top 10, with drawings and a ton of resources.
I am a big fan of mental models, and over time I have built a small arsenal of favorites that I use in many situations.
To me, a mental model is like software for my brain. It is a thought process that I can run, under the appropriate circumstances, to get to some output.
Mental models are also popular with engineers — I suspect because of our familiarity with processes. As engineers, we don’t like ambiguity and uncertainty, so it is comforting to turn something messy into a deterministic series of steps.
So for today I am listing the mental models I like the most, together with the most popular ones in the Refactoring community.
For each model, I will explain it in detail, provide examples for engineering and management, create drawings whenever possible, and include further resources to learn more.
So, consider this post a compendium of the best mental models for engineers and managers in tech. You will be able to bookmark this and revisit it over time.
Here is the agenda:
🗺️ Map vs Territory — an important distinction, which also acts as a premise for this piece.
⚖️ Type 1 vs Type 2 — a Jeff Bezo-ism that also calls for bias for action, and asymmetric rewards.
🔭 Second-order thinking & first principles — two popular models, surprisingly connected.
↩️ Inversion — achieving the positive by avoiding the negative.
🥇 Binstack — making good, multi-dimensional decisions.
🪣 Sunk Cost Fallacy — spotting this cognitive bias in engineering and management.
🔗 Theory of Constraints — finding the weakest links, one at a time.
🌪️ Cynefin — turning chaos into best practices.
➕ Eisenhower Decision Matrix — using it to triage and delegate work.
⭕ Circle of Competence — the popular idea by Charlie Munger, and how it relates to your career.
⚡ Quick models — a lightning round of further simple ideas you can apply in a snap.
Let’s dive in!