“The more models you have in your head, the more you can pick and choose and use the appropriate model for the problem.” — Charlie Munger
As a strategist, innovator, and futurist at Microsoft for more than two decades, I’ve used frameworks and mental models to learn faster, think more critically, and make better decisions.
These tools have allowed me to empower teams and individuals to think better together and approach complex problems with greater clarity and confidence.
In this article, I’ll explore the differences between frameworks and mental models, how they can be used effectively, and how they can help you take your thinking and problem-solving skills to the next level.
Whether you’re a business leader, entrepreneur, or just looking to improve your critical thinking skills, understanding frameworks and mental models can help you make better decisions and achieve your goals more effectively.
What is a Mental Framework?
You might hear some frameworks referred to as “mental framework”, “thought framework” or “mental model”.
Frameworks help people start from common ground. In fact, to start from common ground, let’s define what is a framework:
A framework is a structure to build on. It could be the structure of a building, a project, a system, or anything else.
A framework serves as a foundation versus starting from scratch.
Here are a few ways dictionaries define what is a framework:
- A framework is a particular set of rules, ideas, or beliefs which you use in order to deal with problems or to decide what to do.
- A framework is a structure that forms a support or frame for something.
- A supporting structure around which something can be built.
- The ideas, information, and principles that form the structure of an organization or plan.
Here are a few examples of frameworks:
- A legal framework for resolving disputes.
- Most biologists use the same basic framework for classification.
- The building has a flexible framework so that it can survive an earthquake.
- The steel framework supports the copper covering.
- The U.S. Constitution established a broad framework of government.
What is a Mental Model?
A mental model is a lens. A mental model is effectively a representation of how something works.
Mental models shape what we think and how we understand. Mental models also shape the connections and opportunities that we see.
Mental models serve as a basis and starting point for 3 key things:
- How we simplify complexity
- Why we consider some things more relevant than others
- How we reason through a challenge or problem and solution
We can’t keep all the details in our heads, so we use mental models to simplify complexity down into understandable and organized chunks.
Frameworks vs. Mental Models
A framework is a structured approach or system that provides a way to organize and interpret information or solve problems. It is often a set of guidelines or rules that define how to approach a particular situation.
A mental model, on the other hand, is a cognitive framework or mental construct that helps to explain how something works or how to approach a situation. It is a way of thinking about the world that is shaped by our experiences, beliefs, and assumptions.
While both frameworks and mental models can be used to organize information and solve problems, they differ in their scope and application. Frameworks tend to be broader in scope and can be applied to a variety of situations, while mental models tend to be more specific and focused on a particular topic or problem.
Why Use Mental Frameworks?
Becoming a better thinker means understanding the way you think. It means developing a better way of approaching problems.
You approach problems better when you can see things from multiple lenses and perspectives.
The more lenses you have, the more you can see.
- Start from a foundation. Mental frameworks help you start from a foundation, see a problem from multiple perspectives, and pivot your perspective for new insights.
- Multiple lenses and multi-disciplinary view. Mental frameworks help you see from multiple lenses. The real power of a thought framework is building a shared mental model where you can leverage a multi-disciplinary view and be more inclusive of thinking differently.
- Better collaboration. You can use mental frameworks to create shared models of a problem so you can collaborate better. That’s what makes canvases so popular such as the Business Model Canvas or the Strategy Canvas.
- When to converge and when to diverge. Mental frameworks, or thought frameworks, also help you better understand when to follow conventional wisdom, and when to reject it. For example, the Strategy Canvas from Blue Ocean helps you determine how to zig, when others zag.
- Suspend disbelief. Sometimes the ultimate power of a mental framework is the ability to suspend disbelieve while exploring a challenge that requires new ways of thinking. This can be especially important when working through biases, building empathy for other perspectives, and rising above your own thinking and thought habits.
How Mental Models Help You Learn to Think Better
The quality of your thinking is proportional to the models in your head and their usefulness in the situation at hand.
The more models you have, the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality.
You build a bigger your toolbox, by learning mental models and thought frameworks.
It turns out that variety matters when it comes to improving your ability to make decisions.
That’s why diverse teams that embrace cognitive diversity outperform homogenous teams when it comes to solving complex problems.
This is leaders who embrace diversity and inclusion win.
Charlie Munger on Mental Models
I remember learning about Charlie Munger long ago. He’s Warren Buffet’s right-hand guy when it comes to financial wizardry, market analysis, and investment advice.
What surprised me is that Charlie Munger said that he’s not smart, he just has more mental models in his toolbox (he said something like 80+ mental models at the time).
He said that no matter what problem somebody throws at him, he can slice and dice it, and make sense of it better, faster, and easier through mental models and thought frameworks.
Here is how Charlie Munger summed up his better approach to learning with mental models:
“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back.
If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.
You’ve got to have models in your head.
And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models.
You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered.
Well, they fail in school and in life.
You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”
How To Use Frameworks and Mental Models Effectively
To use frameworks and mental models effectively, it’s important to follow a few key steps:
- Understand the problem or situation: Before applying any framework or mental model, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the problem or situation you’re trying to solve. This includes defining the problem, identifying the stakeholders involved, and determining the scope of the problem.
- Choose the appropriate tool: Once you have a clear understanding of the problem, you can choose the appropriate framework or mental model to apply. Consider the specific characteristics of the problem, the desired outcome, and the strengths and weaknesses of different tools.
- Apply the tool: Once you’ve chosen a tool, it’s time to apply it to the problem at hand. This may involve adapting the tool to fit the specific context, gathering data or information, and working through the problem step by step.
- Evaluate and refine: As you work through the problem using the framework or mental model, it’s important to continually evaluate and refine your approach. This may involve testing assumptions, seeking feedback from others, and making adjustments to the approach as needed.
- Learn and apply: Once the problem has been solved, take the time to reflect on the process and the outcomes. Identify what worked well and what could be improved for future use. Apply the lessons learned to future problems or situations.
By following these steps, you can use frameworks and mental models effectively to improve your problem-solving skills and make better decisions.
Remember, these tools are just that – tools. It’s up to you to use them wisely and adapt them to fit the specific context and situation at hand.
Example of Using a Framework to Think Better
Let’s say you’re trying to launch a new product in a highly competitive market. You’re not sure how to approach the challenge and need to use frameworks and mental models to guide your decision-making process.
- Understand the problem or situation: You begin by defining the problem. You need to identify your target market, understand their needs and preferences, and determine the competitive landscape. You gather information on customer demographics, market trends, and competitive products.
- Choose the appropriate tool: Based on the information you’ve gathered, you decide to use the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) framework. This framework will help you analyze your company’s strengths and weaknesses, identify potential opportunities in the market, and assess the threats posed by competitors.
- Apply the tool: Using the SWOT framework, you conduct an analysis of your company’s strengths and weaknesses. You identify several key strengths, such as a strong brand and a loyal customer base. You also identify weaknesses, such as a lack of market research and limited distribution channels. You then analyze the market and identify potential opportunities for growth, such as a new untapped customer segment. Finally, you assess the threats posed by competitors and identify potential strategies to mitigate those threats.
- Evaluate and refine: As you work through the SWOT analysis, you gather feedback from colleagues and stakeholders. You make adjustments to your approach based on this feedback and test assumptions to validate your findings.
- Learn and apply: After completing the SWOT analysis, you have a better understanding of the market and the competitive landscape. You use this information to develop a product launch strategy that leverages your strengths, addresses your weaknesses, and capitalizes on opportunities. You continue to monitor the market and adjust your strategy as needed based on new information and feedback.
By using the SWOT framework, you were able to approach the challenge of launching a new product in a structured and effective way.
You gained valuable insights into the market and were able to make informed decisions based on a systematic analysis of your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
Master Frameworks and Mental Models to Unlock Your Creative Problem-Solving Potential
Frameworks and mental models are powerful tools that can help you think more critically, make better decisions, and approach complex problems with greater clarity and confidence.
By understanding the differences between these two tools and following a structured approach to their use, you can unlock new levels of creativity and innovation in your thinking.
Remember, these tools are not magic solutions, but rather guidelines and systems to help you approach problems in a structured and effective way.
With practice and persistence, you can use frameworks and mental models to achieve your goals and make a positive impact on the world around you.
Get Charlie Mungers Ultimate Almanac
If you want to learn all about Charlie Munger’s mental models he actually created an almanac:
I have the second edition, and it’s one of the heaviest books I own. I’m not sure how to describe this book as it seems like an eclectic collection of the mind of Charlie Munger and what he draws from to inspire his thinking in work and life. I actually like that it’s one of those physical books where you flip through, look at some pictures, read some text, and glean some insight.
You Might Also Like
3Rs Digital Transformation Framework
5Rs Sustainability Framework
10 Best Change Management Frameworks
10 Best Copywriting Frameworks
CEO Pattern for Digital Transformation
JD’s Storyteller Framework
McKinsey’s 3 Horizon Framework