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Thinking Models: 5 Little-Known Concepts to Navigate the World

How can you manage your massive workload? What does good conflict resolution look like? And why does it more and more feel like you don’t have any answers? Given the myriad of paths we can take to solve problems and make decisions, our minds rely on shortcuts to make sense of the chaos. We fall back on thinking models, cognitive tools we use every day, be it consciously or unconsciously. In his article, we’re going to explore five little-known concepts we can use to reduce the complexity of the world.

What Are Thinking Models?

Thinking models, also known as mental models or mindsets, provide a structured approach to solving problems and making decisions. They’re based on the idea that clear, logical thinking can help us break down complex problems, generate creative solutions and make better decisions. (Who knew?) We can think of them as tools to guide us towards an answer. Similar to mental shortcuts, we often use them unconsciously.

Mental models have been all the rage in the past years. Investors such as Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett and Naval Ravikant credit them for their success. And for good reasons. In a world of information abundance, thinking models work as simplified and experience-based mental representations of how things work. They can help us process information by focusing on what’s relevant and ignoring information that is not.

While thinking models provide a structure to reduce the world’s complexity, they’re also very context-specific. Buffett’s Circle of Competence, for example, is a useful cognitive tool to help find your calling in life. But it’s utterly useless when you’re looking to diagnose the problem with a plane that’s about to crash. So the better your thinking model matches your issue at hand, the better your judgement will be.

5 Little-Known Thinking Models

Let’s dive into five of the lesser-known thinking models. If applied consciously they can help us navigate the world. Even though they’re not without caveats.

1. Eisenhower Matrix: How to Prioritise

You’re knee-deep in work? You’re inundated with calls, requests and emails? Use the Eisenhower Matrix to categorise your tasks by importance and urgency. Also known as the Eisenhower Box or the Urgent-Important Matrix, the thinking model is a tool used to prioritize assignments and manage time. Divide your tasks into four categories based on their urgency and importance. Think of the pile of work you have before you right now. How would you classify each task?

  1. Is it urgent and important? Don’t lose time. Do it now.
  2. Is it important but not urgent? Take your time to decide when you will do it.
  3. Is it urgent but unimportant? Delegate it to someone else.
  4. Is it neither important nor urgent? Do it later.

The matrix is based on the principles of Dwight D. Eisenhower who had one of the busiest jobs imaginable. Being president of the United States. While it can help you break your workload down into manageable bits, there’s a caveat. The utility of the matrix stands and falls with your assessment of a task’s urgency and importance. This is of course not always clear cut, subjective and might change at any moment.

2. SARA Model: How to Solve Problems

The SARA Model is a structured approach to problem-solving. The acronym SARA stands for Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment. It’s popular in the world of problem-oriented policing but can be applied in pretty much any context. Here’s a version I’ve adapted for civilian purposes:

Scanning

In order to solve a problem we first need to find one. This is why at the first stage, we scan our environment for potential problems. That doesn’t mean we’re looking for trouble. We’re identifying issues, for example, based on repeated instances. We also take their potential consequences into account before we prioritise the most pressing ones.

Analysis

Now it’s time to zoom in on our priority problem. We analyse it, trying to understand the background and context of the issue. What is the root cause? Who is involved? How, if at all, has it been addressed so far? To answer those questions we need to gather and evaluate relevant data.

Response

Once the root cause is known, we can look into interventions to address the problems. This includes recommending options to tackle it and considering how they can be implemented. Beware of the law of unintended consequences, though. No matter how well-intentioned, our solution could backfire and make things infinitely worse.

Assessment

The law of unintended consequences is one of the reasons why it’s important to assess if our response was effective. If it was, then a re-scan of the environment should see the problem disappear. If it’s still causing trouble, we should probably re-evaluate our response or go back to analysing the problem once more.

In reality, the SARA Model tends to be used in an iterative, non-linear fashion. The four stages can be revisited at any time. For instance, we may want to go back to the scanning phase to see if the problem persists even when we’re still in the analysis phase. This makes the mental model similar to the Intelligence Cycle used in the intelligence community.

3. Conflict Resolution Model

Conflicts in the form of serious disagreements have the habit of throwing you into chaos. How could it escalate so quickly, you wonder. And how do you get out of it unscarred? Well, I have no idea. But the Conflict Resolution Model highlights six different ways people typically react to conflict. They fall into two categories: emotional and rational.

Emotional Reactions

  • Flight: We evade or avoid the situation entirely rendering the conflict unresolved. The downside is that both parties lose.
  • Fight: We handle a conflict with the intention to triumph over others. The downside is that there can only be one winner.
  • Give up: We retreat and give up. The upshot is that the conflict ends. The downside is that it ends because we lose voluntarily.

Rational Reactions

  • Evade Responsibility: We delegate the matter to someone else. Perhaps they solve the conflict for us. Perhaps they make it infinitely worse. So there’s a chance both parties end up losing.
  • Compromise: We find a solution everyone involved can live with. Though not ideal, this may be the best bad solution for everyone.
  • Consensus: We negotiate a third way to resolve our conflict. In the best-case scenario, we end up with both parties being satisfied.

We can use the thinking model to bring a bit of order into the chaos. By identifying the conflict resolution we are prone to and the reaction we anticipate from our counterparts. Which reaction is the best one highly depends on the situation. If you’re being mugged and get a chance to escape, you’re not trying to reach a consensus. For most non-lethal occasions you may want to master the art of negotiation.


Source: The Decision Book

4. Black Box Model: Why You Don’t Have All the Answers

Have you ever had the impression that things have gotten more complicated? That it’s increasingly difficult to understand the basics of modern life? And that all this happens at an accelerated rate? Now you have a term for it, it’s called the Black Box Model. Suggested by the authors of The Decision Book, this thinking model attempts to explain the phenomenon.

Our existence, the model proposes, is increasingly besieged with black boxes. These are “complex constructs that we do not understand even if they’re explained to us”. While we cannot see inside these black boxes, we still incorporate their implications into our decision-making. Do you really understand how the device you’re reading this article on works? Or the algorithm of the search engine you used to find it?

If we think about it further, the Black Box Model has strange consequences. The more black boxes surround us, the more our everyday decisions become a matter of faith. It could also mean we’re more susceptible to people who offer faith-based explanations rather than rational ones. We seem more comfortable in simplicity, which can lead to Bikeshedding. Meaning, instead of discussing the intricacies of complex systems at length, we revel in the trivialities we can comprehend.

5. Map vs Territory: What Makes All Models Wrong

The map is not the territory” is a phrase coined by Alfred Korzybski. The Polish-American mathematician also noted that “the word is not the thing.” Such remarks may seem like a lacklustre entry for a stating-the-obvious contest. At a second glance, they’re more profound and can serve as a thinking model to understand the relationship between concepts and reality.

Maps only represent our mental construct of the world. The territory, however, is reality. This is why we have to consider maps in the context they were created. Some are ideal for navigating the roads and freeways while driving a car. But they’re not as helpful when we’re looking for bike paths and trails to take us into the wilderness. Both are incomplete and imperfect approximations of the territory after all.

Similarly, mental models are mere mental representations of the world and while they may be useful and helpful, they are not the same as reality itself. We must be able to adapt them accordingly and be flexible enough to select the one that fits our problem. In saying that, the Map vs Territory thinking model makes for a graceful segway to the part where I tell you more about the limitations of these cognitive tools.

The Limits of Thinking Models

Thinking models have clear benefits, which is great because it’s impossible not to use them. As former intel analyst Richards Heuer writes in The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis: “Mental models are inescapable. They are, in essence, a distillation of all that we think we know about a subject.” They’re invaluable tools whenever we face an overabundance of information. However, this is also what determines their trade-offs.

Valuable information can fall through the gaps. Alternative yet true explanations may be discarded. Subsequent solutions and decisions can end up being wrong. It looks like this is especially true for experienced thinkers who fall prey to confirmation bias. We may dismiss information that doesn’t fit our thinking model and embrace data that does. “The problem,” Heuer writes “is how to ensure that the mind remains open to alternative interpretations in a rapidly changing world.”

Closing Thoughts

Collecting thinking models, questioning them and adapting them to your own needs can help us navigate a world of information abundance. As long as we know what their benefits and limitations are. As popular as they have become, they’re not the only game in town. If you’re looking for more collaborative analytical techniques, check out my posts about Structured Analytic Techniques (SATs) such as Premortem Analysis and Deception Detection.