Understand how to apply them to your work.
Peter Senge once described the discipline of managing mental models as "a major breakthrough for building learning organizations." Talk of mental models has become commonplace in user experience, marketing, and product design; and Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffet and Charles Munger have identified actively building a "latticework of mental models" as one of the key factors behind their considerable business success.
So, what are mental models, and which six should you really know about? Hold that thought while we play catch.
What goes up must come down
Imagine throwing a ball into the air and watching it sail into the sky. As you watch, you'll instinctively process what's happening and what will happen next. Based on a lifetime of experience, you'll picture the ball reaching an apex before plummeting to the ground.
That's an example of a mental model—it's a simplified mental representation of reality that individuals use to understand, predict, and act in a complex world. But not all mental models are created equal. A more mature model may add the lens of gravity and an understanding that the mass of the earth is pulling the ball toward it. Further, applying related physics mental models will inform you that the ball will accelerate 9.8 meters per second every second as it falls.
A quick glance at the sports channel will prove that an understanding of gravity is not required to catch a ball. Experience counts in such situations, because a ball falling toward the ground is so predictable. But what happens when it's not? What happens when someone changes a variable or introduces unpredictability?
Imagine throwing a ball from the surface of Mars or into a high-friction atmosphere, or what if a distressingly close planet provided a counter to Earth's gravity? Each situation would result in extreme variations. And in each new instance, the people able to respond with the greatest speed and effectiveness would be the ones with the most developed, accurate, and dynamic mental models to make sense of and predict the new reality.
Landing back in our VUCA world
I know—you don't care about playing sci-fi-inspired catch, right? However, the same principles apply to the way people understand everything. And unlike a ball falling back down, much of everything around us is extremely volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous.
From the pandemic's impact and ongoing digital disruption to a company's drive to innovate and meet a perceived gap in the market—individuals will use mental models to understand and navigate all that and more. Ironically, such mental models are so ingrained in people's minds that they don't even think about them.
Rather, I should say that most people don't think about mental models. I'd argue that, as talent development professionals, we need to be among the growing number of people who are starting to obsess about them.
Munger has been at the forefront of this movement, arguing: "You've got to have models in your head and you've got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—onto this latticework of mental models."
Other champions of this approach include James Clear (Atomic Habits), Charles Duhigg (Smarter Faster Better), and Shane Parrish (Farnam Street), resulting in a growing number of people consciously collecting and constructing a latticework of mental models to make better decisions, innovate, and create greater impact.
First, a warning
You may have noticed that I get excited about the potential of mental model thinking. It's an approach that's central to who I am and was the inspiration behind me co-founding ModelThinkers.com, a startup to empower people to "be smarter, faster with the big ideas from the big disciplines."
Even with all that investment, let me warn you: Mental models can't be trusted.
One of my favorite mental models is The Map Is Not the Territory, which is a reminder that mental models are simplified representations of reality, not reality itself. Or in statistician George Box's words, "All models are wrong, but some are useful."
The trick is finding the ones that will be the most useful in your context—the ones that provide insights, explanations, and predictions and help you take action for your challenges and goals. They will still be imperfect, but refining and choosing the right ones for the right situations will provide extraordinary results.
So, with that in mind, let's dive into the six mental models that talent development professionals really need to know.
1. T-shaped people to frame strategic capabilities
Developed as the "T-shaped man" by McKinsey & Company in the 1980s, this model was popularized by design firm IDEO in the 1990s and is becoming an important model to engage with businesses that are riding the waves of digital disruption.
The basic narrative goes like this: Today, our ambiguous world requires crossdisciplinary teams to solve complex problems or innovate the way forward. That means employers can no longer rely on "siloed geeks" who just care about their discipline. Sure, companies still need deep specialists with disciplinary expertise, but now individuals must combine that expertise with cross-disciplinary capabilities and an understanding of a range of other domains—plus the soft skills to better collaborate and deliver value.
This model can help you challenge any business stakeholder who views skills such as communication and collaboration as optional extras and reframe such skills as basic requirements to future-proof the organization and themselves. I recently addressed a large group of software engineers about this issue. I made the point that they can keep learning more and more complex Python, but my 15-year-old son was learning Python too. The only way they could future-proof themselves was by combining that deep Python expertise with broad cross-functional and soft skills.
2. Psychological safety as the secret for high performance
Google's Project Aristotle represents a deep investigation into the anatomy of high-performing teams, spanning a decade and investigating 180 teams, using 35 statistical models, double-blind interviews, and more.
Researchers found that team composition was less important than the way a team interacts. Specifically, they found that the single most important factor for high-performing teams was psychological safety.
It's a sometimes-ambiguous term, but psychological safety can be measured by the attitude to risk and failure, the amount of open and frank conversations, people's willingness to offer and ask for help, and the level of inclusivity and diversity in an organization.
Importantly, understanding it and the research behind it will empower you to have pointed culture conversations with C-suite executives who may otherwise dismiss such matters as fluff. Name-dropping case studies from Google and even NASA certainly won't harm your case.
3. Spaced retrieval as a proven memory hack
I have mixed feelings about this one. It's inclusion somehow implies that our job is about getting people to remember more content. Such a content obsession has done much to damage our profession's credibility and impact.
That said, there are times when people need to learn some critical knowledge. Ideally, in terms of knowledge, prioritize dynamic mental models over facts and information that would be better captured via just-in-time performance resources to reduce cognitive load.
Disclaimers aside, when you face such a problem, you want to know about spaced retrieval, which combines two of the most evidence-based learning techniques available. Put simply, spaced practice is about spacing out learning into small sessions over time. That enables learners to start to forget the subject before they recall it—which, counterintuitively, is a desirable difficulty that better embeds it into long-term memory.
The other part of this model is retrieval practice, which involves learners testing themselves on the content before they feel comfortable with it, rather than just reviewing it. That sometimes-frustrating approach avoids illusions of competence where people mistake recognition with learning. Note that while retrieval in school is largely about testing, in a work context, it could involve explaining, sharing, writing, applying, or debating it.
Be warned, spaced retrieval will not always land well on a smile sheet. It can feel as though individuals are learning less than if they had just reviewed content in large sessions. But the results via countless studies are undeniable.
4. Double-loop learning to develop intelligence and impact
I talked up front about a conscious approach to mental models being your secret weapon. Well, this is the model you'll use to develop and improve that weapon.
Imagine walking through an unfamiliar house in complete darkness. Someone applying single-loop learning will bump into a chair, step back, and walk in a different direction. They've made a course correction, but it remains a superficial and essentially reactive approach.
By contrast, when someone applying double-loop learning bumps into the same chair, they will think and consciously update their mental model of the room—perhaps it's a dining area with a table and more chairs? They may construct a hypothesis about the next room too. The trick is to hold such a mental model as a working hypothesis and then take action, or in this case another step, which provides more feedback and informs further updates to mental models as a result.
Are you applying double-loop learning to make the most of your own hard-won lessons? Are you drawing out transferable mental models to improve your understanding and action in other contexts? That's practical intelligence: the ability to learn new models and apply them dynamically in other contexts to achieve results.
For example, when I first became a parent 19 years ago, I soon realized that I was totally out of my depth. One of the many parenting books I read talked about a method called nonviolent communication, which helped me reframe misbehavior into a form of communication. The trick was to go below the child's behavior, empathize, and respond to the underlying feelings and needs.
I loved that model, and though I didn't always live up to it, I was constantly reflecting on how else I could use such parenting lessons in other contexts. A few years later, in a work context, such double-loop learning led me to become an early adopter of design thinking—giving me a familiar framework to go below a stakeholder's request for more training content, to empathize, and to respond to underlying business needs. That is now the core of a performance consulting process that I have taught to L&D teams across the world—and it started with me working to address my inadequate parenting.
5. Deliberate practice to develop complex skills
Malcolm Gladwell famously argued that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field. Unfortunately, the researcher whose work he based that finding on disagreed. Anders Ericsson was that researcher, and he vocally argued against specific timeframes, instead laying out evidence that deliberate practice was the key for accelerated complex skill development.
Deliberate practice involves choosing a specific goal; breaking that down into regular, effortful, and targeted periods of practice; gaining expert feedback; and using that feedback to correct, stretch, and refocus on areas that need improvement.
It has similarities to double-loop learning in cycles of action and feedback to develop more accurate mental models. The main difference is that it assumes that the person does not know what good looks like and thus requires expert feedback and additional targeted practice based on that input.
Not surprisingly, expert mental models make experts. They're born from feedback, reflection, and conscious improvement, not just experience alone, and they result in more developed and accurate mental models in that domain.
Think of it as extreme pattern recognition. So, a chess grandmaster will recognize a play and counter in seconds, a top surgeon will predict complications based on countless lessons, and a high-performing coder will break the problem into building bricks they've drawn on numerous times.
Applying this model to accelerate talent development is all about designing cycles of application with expert feedback through scenarios, simulations, coaching, and so on.
The sixth model
The final mental model that talent development professionals should know is …
Sorry, but this one is up to you. I could have chosen from dozens that would likely be useful, but instead I'm going to encourage you to listen to Munger, who said: "You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines, and use them routinely—all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model—economics, for example—and try to solve all problems in one way. You know the old saying: ‘To the man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail.' This is a dumb way of handling problems."
It's a matter of applying the T-shaped person model on yourself as you develop your cross-functional skills. You may incorporate value-proposition from product management, the EAST framework from behavioral economics, or maybe the challenger sales model from sales and marketing. And I haven't even touched upon the countless useful models in the world of cognitive psychology and unconscious biases, which are the hidden mental models or heuristics that drive people.
Fortunately, talent development professionals have access to a broad cross section of domains and people. Use that, exploit it, and let your curiosity uncover more diverse mental models that you can incorporate into your own practice.
The point is to embrace mental model thinking—you do it anyway, but now you have the potential to do it consciously and actively. And as you go further down that road, you won't just be supporting your audience, you'll be the agile learning champion who role models what's possible.