Three Mental Models Great Managers Use


Photo by Dhilung Kirat

Organizations, left unattended, move toward disorder.  The realities of Parkinson’s Law – the idea that work expands to fill the amount of time allocated to complete it – have been well documented.  So, Parkinson’s Law helps to explain why organizations naturally evolve towards disorder, and ultimately poor performance.  Managers, of course, act to correct this.  An array of mental models assist managers in working against this natural disorder, but there are three primary mental models that produce the majority of the results: 

  1. Comparative Advantage
  2. Maximizing Non-Egality
  3. Checklisting

Comparative Advantage: If an organization is employing managers, it has likely reached a point where time has become precious to a series of individuals.  Time is Inelastic – no matter how high the demand is, the supply is limited.  The limited amount of time that we each have necessitates delegation.  And delegation is the end result of Comparative Advantage.  Just because one person can do three things better than everyone else doesn’t mean that person should be doing all three things.  Delegating one or two of them may yield a greater or better total result.  This is the idea of Comparative Advantage.

Maximizing Non-Egality: Organizations are filled with a variety of different people.   Each person has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.  In order to make those strengths productive (and those weaknesses irrelevant), managers Maximize Non-Egality.  In other words, managers don’t treat everyone equally.  This is because, logically enough, everyone isn’t equal.  Those who outperform in certain areas are better in that area.  And in order to yield the greatest results, it’s best to maximize inequality by only assigning the best at each task to that task.  Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden was famous for this on the basketball floor.  He also said that it was his commitment to preparation that forced him to look honestly at the weaknesses and faults of his team, as well as focus on the long-term goals and dreams.  So in the way of Wooden, in order to maximize non-egality, preparation is an absolute requirement.

It is important to consider how certain aspects of Cognitive Misjudgment impact maximizing non-egality as well. The Use-It-Or-Lose-It Tendency, for example, reinforced maximizing non-egality.  The Use-It-Or-Lose-It Tendency is the simple idea that use of a skill increases ability in that skill, and non-use decreases ability in that skill.  So this tendency allows strengths to stay strong (through using them), maximizing non-egality.  Another aspect of cognitive misjudgment that eventually impacts maximizing non-egality is the Senesence-Misinfluence Tendency.  This is the idea that after a certain age, our skills attenuate.  And despite the obvious implications of ageism, there is a point at which age becomes a factor in ability.  This must also be considered.

Checklisting: The overt challenge most managers face is in prioritization and execution.  Because of the way we (humans) think, writing every task down in Checklist fashion allows for better prioritization and execution.  The act of Checklisting often leads to the ability to group similar tasks, and Batch them when appropriate.  Appropriate Batching can lead to Parallel Processing (this is not Multi-tasking – it is single tasking to stopping points).  All of this leads to more work getting done.

These three mental models will account for the bulk of results in effective management.  In addition however, every manager will derive some additional benefit from the following Mental Models:

  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:  Managers must consider the inherent nature of human beings.  Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs sums this up quite nicely. Maslow himself elaborated on the idea: “The best managers increase the health of the workers whom they manage. They do this via the gratification of basic needs for safety, for belongingness, for affectionate relationships and friendly relationships with their informal groups, prestige needs, needs for self-respect, etc.”  The fear of not having these things can play a major role in creating passionately dedicated employees.
  • Feedback Loops:  Managers essentially act as a feedback loop, relaying information through an organization. Understanding how to boost certain informational relays, and mute others, is critical to a properly functioning organization.
  • Systems and Constraints:  Managers are responsible for removing barriers and obstacles (or Constraints).  The job of the manager is an enabling one, not a directive one – it’s coaching, not mandating.
  • Symbiosis: An organization is comprised of many different types of people.  The manager is responsible for creating a symbiotic environment, where everyone lives and works together in harmony.  Most people just call this culture.

There it is: a synopsis of the Mental Models that dictate great management.