Improve your thinking through the use of mental models


Hard to believe it has been over a month since I made the public announcement to launch Clear Way Forward. I have enjoyed the excitement, activity, challenges, and work to date. It is not as easy as I expected and my efforts have met with mixed results but I still feel a calling to remain true to the path, goal and dream. I am very conscious of the fact that 90% of all start-ups fail. Whether the stat is accurate or not, I am not here to affirm or debate, but I understand what I just chose to do has a far higher failure rate than success. Thus, I choose to think, 10% of startups succeed. I am committed to making it 11%.


“Leaders are created in the crucible of life.” (Hansen, 2011) The statement is as true today as it was in 2011, and since the dawn of mankind. Hansen states that while MBA programs tout how they develop leaders, he, and a growing volume of literature, would suggest differently. MBA grads are skilled professionals and the degree remains valuable, but the MBA program has hardly proven to be the crucible of modern leadership.

While websites, marketing campaigns, yield rates, smack talk in the pubs, will attempt to distinguish one MBA program from another, most curriculum today looks relatively similar – marketing, managerial accounting, strategy, economics, organizational behavior, and, the obligatory nod, leadership. (Because leadership can be taught in one semester)

The programmatic challenge in many graduate programs is they teach students what to think, not how to think.  Mental models are a transformative way to think about problems in today’s world that is often characterized by the framework VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).

One leader in the use of mental models is Charlie Munger. Charlie Munger is the less known partner of Berkshire Hathaway with Warren Buffet. Zat Rana (2017) describes how Charlie Munger uses mental models to help illuminate universal truths and apply interdisciplinary thinking to his investment decisions. He states that mental models help: Simplify Complexity to Better Impact the World, Remove Blind-spots to Improve Problem-solving, and help See Reality Clearly Through a Multidisciplinary Lens because we are who we are and our professions makes us myopic.

Shane Parrish is the curator of the Farnum Street blog and I would commend his site to you. “Farnam Street (FS) helps you master the best of what other people have already figured out. Together we will develop the mental models to understand how the world works, make better decisions, and live a more meaningful life.”

Gary and Wood (2017) cite that more accurate mental models lead to better decision rules and higher performance. They also found that decision makers do not need accurate knowledge of the entire business operation if they understand how to think through the challenges by using frameworks and mental models. They would suggest mental models are the key principles to achieve superior performance.

In the Department of Defense, we use a number of different models and frameworks to think through dynamic, challenging, often asymmetric, VUCA problems. These frameworks are effective starting points on how to think about the problem, not some programmed, robotic, doctrinal, templated response (not to suggest that anyone out there would ever think that about the military). One example is the application of Joint Functions. Joint Functions are applicable at the operational level of warfare (campaigning and major operations). They are related capabilities and activities, when grouped together help integrate, synchronize, and direct joint operations. These functions reinforce and complement one another and are deemed essential to mission accomplishment at the operational level of warfare. (Joint Pub 3-0).

Recently I participated in a conference that tried to determine how to integrate cyberspace planning and operations throughout the military educational system. To use a horse racing analogy, we couldn’t get out of the starting bloc because we didn’t have any framework or model to have a valuable discussion. Through the use of frameworks, I proposed a method in which we could have these discussions in a more deliberate and disciplined manner (shared here as an example:

There is a lot of noise out there today. It is easy to get information overload preventing you as a leader from making sound and timely decisions. If you want to advance your thinking, and learn to make better decisions, spend some time to discipline your thinking though the use of mental models. I figure if it is good enough for Charlie Munger, it is probably good enough for the rest of us.

Join the conversation here or let us help you See Thru the Storm.



Farnum Street Blog.

Gary, Michael Shayne, and Robert E. Wood (2011) “MENTAL MODELS, DECISION RULES, AND PERFORMANCE HETEROGENEITY.” Strategic Management Journal 32.6: 569-94. Web.

Hansen, Drew (2011). Why MBA Programs Don’t Produce Leaders. October 4, 2011. Retrieved

Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations. Joint Chief of Staff.

Rana, Zat. (2017). Charlie Munger: How to Get Smarter by Using Mental Models. September 7, 2017.

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