I had great feedback on the usefulness of last week’s mental models’ blog, so I wanted to share more on what I consider useful mental models.

These models are practical and useful models that we can share with our co-workers to help us see and similarly understand the world. Again, looking through the same color of lenses helps us look at the issues in the same way and come to more reasoned solutions.

In one sense, these models act as a common metaphor to describe the issue and outcomes associated with it. Again, these models help simplify the complex.

The Lindy Effect: This mental model tells us that the life expectancy of an idea is related to its current lifespan. If an idea has lasted for 50 years, we can expect it to last another 50 years. This mental model helps to explain why specific ideas in education have and will continue to hang on for so long. As an example, state testing for accountability has been around for 20+ years, so we can expect it to remain in some form for another 20 years.

Creative Destruction: From economics, creative destruction tells us that to stay alive in the market, new ideas are always at a premium to improve older ones. You see this in the onslaught of ideas and concepts showing up every year. This mental model is essential to understand that new ideas will always come to you as a leader and to understand when something is genuinely new. For instance, with the advent of more modern standards, textbook companies in many cases have slapped a new label on their books without really changing what is on the inside to avoid creative destruction. Buyer beware.

The Tendency to Distort: Humans have a common tendency to distort their thinking in favor of people or things they like or against people or things they do not like. Due to past experiences, general makeup or ideology, we tend to over or under rate. The Tendency to Distort is a crucial mental model for leaders who are looked upon to be fair and reasonable toward all things. For example, let’s say you had a run-in with a teacher, you may tend to distort his performance.

Activation Energy and Catalysts: From chemistry, we know that two combustible items will not naturally combust without the right amount of activation energy or a catalyst to start the reaction. Social systems act in a very similar way and help us understand how to start movements. For example, think about the role of a great leader whose speech helps activate and catalyze a social action.

Reciprocity: From physics, we know that if we push against something, it pushes back with equivalent force. This mental model is essential to understand as a leader in that systems will push back in some form if we struggle against them. Not to say we shouldn’t, but know that you will get “pushback.” For instance, if you change leave policy in the middle of the year, you will probably hear about it.

The Tendency to Generalize from Small Instances: Humans need the ability to generalize around rules and ideas since we can’t be involved in everything. However, we also tend to overgeneralize from a small number of instances. This mental model is essential to acknowledge because if we tend to overgeneralize, we can spend a lot of time and energy chasing things that are not problems. For instance, you may have a teacher come to you and say “everybody” is upset about X when only one or two people are. You could spend all day chasing this down when you just needed to talk to two people to resolve it.

The Tendency to Minimize Energy: Energy is the primary resource in our life. Without energy, we cannot live or perform. Biology tells us that any living organism that wastes energy is at a severe disadvantage for survival, so we see that humans tend to minimize energy, especially brain energy, when at all possible. This mental model is vital to understand as change requires extra power, so reducing energy in other areas is essential. For instance, having a significant training after a full day of teaching may not be very productive as most energy has been utilized by that point.

Leverage: Just like a stick put in the right place can move a large boulder; this mental model shows us that a small amount of force can lead to a great deal of output force. This mental model is essential in that if we can figure out where best to apply the right leverage, we can move larger systems. For example, in turn around school situations, we often find many, many problems that cannot all be fixed at once. However, if we see the right area of leverage, it can have a considerable impact on the whole school.


The lesson for all of us in leadership positions is that other disciplines can help us envision our organizations in different ways. By using different mental models, we can see why specific issues exist and what may be causing them. While these models are what I consider useful mental models, there are also numerous mental models that come from cognitive science and behavioral economics that help us to understand the limits of our thinking. We will explore those next week.