Mental Models for Product Innovation

Note: This is part 1 of 3 of a series I’ve been working on with mental models and their applications to product. The beauty of these is that they’re all well-established ideas, so if you want to learn more you’re only a quick google away. This has been a real labor of love, so enjoy!

Innovation is often wrongly described as something that comes from either momentary sparks of inspiration, or from those rare few who can summon it at will.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “create your own luck” which comes from the idea that luck isn’t purely random. Instead, you can create it by putting yourself in the right place, right time, and with the right mindset.

Creativity and innovation are not much different. There are structured ways to produce both for yourself and your organizations. Some people believe that creativity is the domain of the young since they haven’t had the time to develop rigid world views that might keep you from seeing the creativity in front of your nose.

However, that misses a key aspect of innovation — experience. In Design Thinking, part of creating innovative solutions is leveraging you and your team’s “repertoire”, the collection of experience you’ve gathered over your educational and professional career. Someone on the team majored in economics and has a thought on how to use incentives well with your product/service, someone else has experience in manufacturing and has an idea about requirements processing, someone else has experience in UX and can inform the design. This is collaborative brainstorming and innovation at work.

C’mon, you knew there was going to be a generic “brainstorming” graphic here, right?

That paints a pretty picture, yet it’s difficult to create that kind of diverse and talkative crowd in the workplace. For many reasons, we spend most of our adult lives trying to specialize and create a more narrow world view. The narrow view of the problem and solution is one of the main enemies of innovation. A byproduct of this specialization is that most of the people in our companies tend to be like us, with similar backgrounds and experiences. Also, you may not always get to work with a team, oftentimes you are alone needing to come up with some innovative solutions to your problems.

So what are we to do? Enter mental models.

Mental models may sound like a vague term (two words with many interpretations put together), but they are frameworks to view the world/systems/problems that come from various disciplines. You already use them in everyday life, though you might not realize it. You have a mental model of gravity in your head, though you’re not a physicist. You have one for supply/demand though you are not an economist. (Okay, some of you may be one)

The more of these you can use, the more you can understand the problem and its potential solutions. With a narrow view, it’s like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with a magnifying glass. You don’t see the big picture, and you have to search for the right pieces. With mental models, you’re borrowing the distilled insights from various disciplines in a usable form.

The point is that over time, you will be able to approach a problem, and be able to view it from the lens of an ecologist, an epidemiologist, a mathematician, an artist, etc instead of having to actually find those people or pursue their paths. How valuable could that be? (Very)

I’ve been digging into these over the last month, it’s got me excited, and I want to share some thoughts with you all. As I did more digging, I realized that these were better broken down into three parts. Models for innovation, models for decision making, and models for strategy. Here, as you probably could’ve guessed by the preceding paragraphs, I will break down some models for innovation.

What it is: The difference in thinking in first principles, and not, is as Tim Urban likes to say, the difference between a chef and a cook. A chef understands the taste profiles and properties of the food and can alter and combine them into tasty new recipes. A cook only follows a recipe that has already been created and doesn’t need to understand all of the intricacies behind it.

Guess which role we need to fill as product professionals?

Application: To effectively create change, or create something new, it’s vital to understand the first principles. You can’t for instance, develop a game plan for a football team if you don’t know the rules of football or what a football looks like.

To get to thinking in first principles, that is, the foundational laws that govern our problem and not by assumptions (“Well, this is the way it’s always been done, why should we reinvent it?”) you need to dig into “Why?” And “So what?”. As toddlers, we do this because we’re eager to understand these principles. As adults, we get labeled as annoying or stubborn when we want to do the same at work.

Why is it that way? — Brainstorm answers, followed by “So what?” Is the “why” valuable, does it hold relevance or importance for us? If you keep going, you should eventually end up at a first principle upon which you can start to build a solid new potential solution.

Uhh, the peppers are the customers, the olive oil is your tech, the heat is your teamwork?

What it is: Inversion is inverting a problem statement, switching the syntax around to view the challenge differently. So, instead of asking, “What might make this better?”, ask “What could we do to avoid making this worse?” Or “If X is our goal, what obstacles are in our way, what can we do to eliminate them?” If you eliminate the bad, only the good should remain.

Application: Innovation is hard, which is part of what makes it valuable. An easier way than what I would call “positive” changes, is to think of the “negative” to your goal and see what solutions might emerge from that.

Avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance. You might find some low-hanging fruit in your product design that could make the experience that much better.

(Caveat: This should not drive the process, these will often be marginal gains that are useful when you’ve exhausted the big pain points)

What it is: All beings respond to incentives. It is a fundamental insight of both biology and economics. We will repeat behaviors that reward us and avoid those that don’t or are too costly. Good products will create strong incentives and make the cost and outcome clear.

Application: The incentives for using your product should be clear already, most of us are doing that. However, there are little incentives embedded throughout the product that can drive even more value for your customer. Welcome messages, thank-you’s, rewarding screens, or animations a la Asana. Sending content as soon as someone subscribes. Both are examples of incentivized behavior that results in better product usage.

What it is: Uh oh, there’s a fire. The oven was left on and it caught the house on fire. Leaving the oven on was the proximate cause. However, the root cause is unclear yet also more important. You don’t blame the oven, and replacing it won’t prevent future fires. Did you leave the oven on? Was it because you were too busy? Or because you left the house in a hurry again? That’s the root cause that needs to be addressed.

Application: You’re going to have problems with your product. To avoid waste, spend time looking for the root cause(s), the true culprit. Keep going back until you arrive at a point in which your ability to change the cause meets appropriate causality. In some instances, it may not be appropriate or realistic to go after the root cause if it turns out to be something like the structure of the programming language. Otherwise, don’t scurry around with short-term fixes for proximate causes. Do the proper investigating to find new solutions.

What it is: “They just don’t build ’em like they used to.” Ever hear that? Well, it’s a tempting nostalgic sentiment for days when craftsmen cared for their product and didn’t cheap out on goods or patience. Except its bullshit. The only houses and furniture surviving from 80 years ago were exceptionally well made, well above the average. The poorly built buildings we don’t see, so we don’t factor them in. Of course we’ve gotten better at building things in the last 80 years. This is survivorship bias and it happens everywhere.

Application: There are a lot of ideas for your product that did not survive, and may have been put out of sight and out of mind completely. That’s unwise as there are plenty of examples of once useless ideas that came back to be huge successes.

The post-it note was an initial failure, the inventor was looking for a strong adhesive. That was until a colleague wished for a bookmark that stuck to the page, but didn’t leave a residue. Gorilla Glass from Corning was invented well before smartphones, but there wasn’t a use for it at the time so it sat on a shelf.

Take care to look back through ideas or solutions that were useless, and see if it wasn’t their time yet. You never know what little spark might come from a long-forgotten item.

Careful taking too many lessons from this structure.

What it is: The process of combining two materials into a new, more useful hybrid. It comes from metalworking, in which we are all familiar with steel emerging from iron and carbon. Fine on their own, transformational together.

Application: Look for opportunities in which two smaller ideas combined might be more multiplicative than additive. Can two ideas combine to benefit each other and the larger project? To do this, you’ll have to expand your point of view and get creative with the potential possibilities of combined ideas. Difficult, but worthwhile if you can find pay dirt.

What is it: Convergent thinking is more straightforward, in which multiple ideas compete and are condensed into a single solution. Divergent thinking is more nebulous, in which multiple ideas are explored until exhaustion and experimented with until one remains. Convergent is more analytical, divergent is more creative.

Application: Which cognitive approach is best depends on the problem. For straightforward problems in which you know most of the variables, convergent thinking is appropriate. When you have a new problem, and no prior solutions to lean on, divergent thinking is wonderful for creating a new one. This kind of approach is the basis of Design Thinking in which barriers are seen as design opportunities. A powerful tool to add to our bag.

Well, that’s all for now. Look out for parts 2 and 3 coming to you soon.



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Thomas Sloan

Hi. I’m Thomas. I like to think about thoughts, and then write for clarity. Not everything here is a fully formed belief. Let’s talk :)