Five unexpected learnings from Ray Dalio’s Principles

Sure, Ray Dalio is well known for his approach to “radical transparency” and the uncompromising way he has implemented that (as well as the extraordinary investment success of his firm, Bridgewater), but his recent book Principles held learnings for me in a number of unexpected areas including: mistakes and failure , the art of disagreement and what might be described as “soft skills”.

Underneath what might seem on the surface – to some-  a set of stark, tough, emotionless dictats I found something a little different – there is a deeper truth – Dalio is asking people to have a sense of introspection and humility, to sincerely believe that they might be wrong and open themselves to other viewpoints and critiques, and to reflect hard on their mistakes as this is where the best learnings are to be found.

And the reason for writing and sharing the principles? It all started with a meeting between Dalio and some of his key partners in the early 1990’s where they presented him with a candid – and stark – picture of the negative effects that his focus and determination had on others in the organisation – that they felt belittled, unnecessary, incompetent and overwhemled. In addressing this, Dalio decided it was important to set out the principles he was operating by, in a way to try and get in sync with his employees so that they could see where he was coming from more easily. Which could mean they would be more understanding of his approach, and less likely to be affected in negative ways.

The big question reading Principles is of course what valuable read-across can one take into other organisations. I would argue plenty, but even for those that disagree surely setting out principles and spending time getting in sync on them is universally a good thing for meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

Here are my top 5 least-expected takeaways from Principles:

 

  • Making mistakes & learning from failure. At the heart of the book is Dalio’s own story and evolution. He shares a story from the early days of Bridgewater –  he took too much risk betting on the bond market in the early 1980’s that the firm imploded and he lost almost everything he had built (he had to let go all the people working for him at the time). In reflecting on that he developed some clear thinking about how to respond to failure, and he is convinced that we can learn a lot more from our failures than our successes (self evident perhaps, but worth lingering on as it can be all too easily overlooked or forgotten). Treat the pain of failure -and yes, you need to feel pain- as a trigger. A trigger to reflect deeply, reflect objectively from a higher level. Reflect both on the proximate cause of the “case-at-hand” but also at the “machine design” level (that is, the organisational, workflow or systems design construct that generated the mistake). To evolve successfully one must first correctly perceive and diagnose the problem (objectively), identify a better design, and push through on implementation. Experience creates an internalized learning that book learning can’t replace, so in that sense mistakes and failure should be treated as valuable opportunities to create powerful learnings.

 

  • The art of thoughtful disagreement. Open-mindedness is clearly pretty key to Dalio’s worldview and is behind, in his view, the extraordinary success that Bridgewater has had over the years. He talks at length about the principles behind ensuring that disagreement is fostered, and this I think is the key bit – is handled and resolved in efficient and amicable ways that move everyone forward. There are a handful of principles that get at this – including sincerely believing that you might be wrong, treating a disagreement as an “open exploration of what is true”, rather than an “I win you lose” clash of ideas (which happens all too easily, in my experience), doing everything you can to understand how others come by their opinions, and focus on being “open minded and assertive” (the idea being, it’s easy to be assertive when you are pushing a point of view, but more helpful to be assertive but neutral, to explore what’s true). At the end of the day what matters is moving forward, and his ideas around a “believability weighted” meritocracy are compelling. Dalio’s view is that two of the biggest barriers to progress are our individual egos (and the dogged attachment to our own ideas that generates) and our un-awareness of our own blindspots. This insight is well worth reflecting on and I for one know I could strive to do better on both of these fronts (both un-attaching myself from my views and ego, and working harder to understand blindspots).

 

  • Invest as much time as possible “getting in sync”. In an unexpected nod to what might be described as “softer skills” Dalio talks at length of the need to invest in getting in sync with others (colleagues, peers etc) mainly to compare your principles against those of others and check where there is disalignment. Being clear on principles is, key to moving efficiently from disagreement to decision, hence “getting in sync” on one another’s principles and knowing what you have in common sets up the systems for resolving future conflict and disagreement. In the long run it increases efficiency, but you need to prioritise because of time constraints. Priority should be important issues with the most believable and relevant parties. Again you could argue this is good sense rather than revelatory, but probably all too easily forgotten or missed out in the whirl of the day-to-day and the temptation to focus on the new, the urgent or the interesting. I have certainly resolved to to spend more time focusing on this.

 

  • Be clear & honest on personality and attribute dimensions. Understanding that people are wired very differently (for example: task vs goal oriented, an aptitude for concepts vs plans, an intuitive vs sensing approach and whether detail or big-picture focused. ) and that for an organisation to functionally optimally you need the right design of skill and capability comb’s in the right roles. Be honest about the suitability of individuals for roles by focusing on capability dimensions ( in practice probably too often overlooked in light of someone’s likability, social skills or similarity to the decision maker/interviewer). I would be grateful to see what the underlying personality dimensions are behind the tools that Dalio refers to (eg Baseball cards and Dot Collector). He mentioned these may be released soon in a “Principles app”, so i look forward to that.

 

  • In meetings, ensure levels are navigated effectively and synthesis is achieved. We’ve all been there – that meeting that gets dragged “into the weeds”, (that is to say a granular debate on points several levels below that of the real question at hand), possibly never to be recovered. “Reality exists at different levels and each of them gives you different but valuable perspectives”. Synthesis refers to the mental combining/processing of data points across levels in forming an overall picture (and coming to a decision). So the key to an effective meeting, is an exchange that can achieve synthesis by successfully navigating levels effectively, that is lower levels might be explored to degrees of various depth to gain insight along the way, but the main level is returned to, and progress made along that level. Another area of insight into “soft skills” that I was not expecting – but really resonated. This picture from the book sums it up well –


My favourite Dalio quotes:

 

 

 

Two Days with Biohackers

Last weekend we spent a fascinating two days at the Bio-hackers summit at a disused power station on the outskirts of Helsinki. A number of people have already asked me what my main takeaways were so I wanted to get some of them down straight away before memory fades too much, hopefully I’ll add to this through time.

One pleasant surprise about the event generally was how practically focused a lot of the speakers were. It was unexpected. I had expected a lot more high-tech focused sessions around apps, gadgets and medical innovation. While there was some of this, a lot of it was much more “ground level” (perhaps the clue was in the word “hack”) and gave me a huge number of immediately actionable ideas – some of which I had already started thinking about myself, which is always nice! It’s helped me progress some of my own thinking on productivity for knowledge work.

Top 5 takeaways –

  1. Understanding basics of nervous system can give simple insights

The basics of our nervous system have remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years, and evolved to suit a very different environment to that which we now live. This simple insight can unearth a lot of useful thoughts. For example, understanding the basic roles of dopamine, serotonin and cortisol in controlling our levels of motivation, happiness and stress – and the natural triggers to activate each of these can play a key role in helping us modulate our moods and control stress.

Probably the biggest insight I gained on the nervous system was the difference between the sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system and the parasympathetic (“rest/digest”). As a species we evolved to survive first, then thrive, which means that triggers linked to survival promote incredibly strong nervous reactions. During the day we operate on a spectrum between these two extremes. Ancient humans would achieve balance between the two by resting in their cave following attempts to hunt animals. The modern world is set up to trigger fight/flight reactions more than it is set up to allow rest/digest – environmental triggers play a big role in switching between these modes, and triggers that promoted survival have become deeply encoded. Hence, to achieve the balance we need for optimum wellness and performance we need to work hard to find environments where rest/digest is possible (we need to find our “cave” – this insight helps understand why travel and moving house can both be stressful/tiring). If we are not careful we can set a new baseline at higher levels of sympathetic nervous system usage, which is damaging to wellbeing.

The role of natural light in the way we function and our own circadian rhythm – we are all set up to function optimally for different tasks at different times of the day, and achieving optimal productivity is about understanding this rhythm not trying to control it. For example most morning-people are able to achieve peak mental focus around 10am, best working memory around midday, peak co-ordination around 2pm, reactions around 3pm and peak cardiovascular ability at around 5pm.

  1. Connectedness to nature is shown to have a variety of positive benefits

Humans spent >99% of evolutionary history in natural environments, which is where nervous system evolved, said Olli Sovijarvi. Connectedness to nature has been scientifically linked to improved cognitive performance and happiness. This can be as simple as “grounding” – walking barefoot on soil or grass. Nature sounds eg birdsong shown to lower stress hormone cortisol. Having just moved away from central London, we now have the luxury of a garden and greater access to nature than we did before – I want to make sure we’re making full use of this everyday (see morning routine below!).

  1. You can use technology to provide “memory as a service”

Spending time recalling enjoyable events and moments of connection with others can be key positive influences on happiness. Don’t rely on your own highly imperfect memory to recall important and enjoyable events, Chris Dancy explained how social media can play a great role here. Apps like timehop, or facebook can surface previous memories for you each day. It’s possible to add songs, videos and locations to instagram posts to make the memory even richer. It’s even possible to time travel forward using facebook by writing posts to your future self, which will get re-shown to you a year hence (you can arrange the setting such that only you can see it). What better way to help your future self reflect than to pose the big questions or challenges that are occupying your mind today.

We had already started doing this to some extent, using particular hashtags on instagram to record our summer hihglights or information about our visits to particular cities (check our #djfrenglishsummer2017 or #djfrenglishstats if you’d like to see). It’s always interesting when a speaker takes a topic that you have taken the first few steps on yourself, and shows you a load more.

 

  1. Think about mindfulness (as part of a morning ritual)

Mindfulness was a recurring theme at the biohacker event, with multiple speakers referring to it. Clearly it’s a big theme in its own right, with plenty of literature and buzz around its usefulness in the corporate world. You might even say it’s being overdone.

I found it helpful to hear about mindfulness from some thoughtful speakers, including doctors, and in particular how people had used it in their own lives. As many others have said, taking the first steps toward practicing mindfulness can be as simple as spending a few minutes each morning focusing on breathing and trying to control the distractions that enter the mind. We have started doing this more consistently each morning.

  1. The role of a morning routine

Tomi Kokko took us through his morning routine and the logic behind it, which really got us thinking. Since we’ve been back we’ve worked on our own version. Tomi gives himself a minute after waking up to get into a cold shower – while that isn’t quite for us we’ve been thinking about how a combination of mindfulness, breathing, short intense bursts of exercise designed to get oxygen flowing can be combined with being outdoors, barefoot and the right combination of nutrition in the mornings(lemon water for hydration, coffee, fats for brain function and spices for increased blood flow). It would be too early to claim this as a success but I’ll aim to report back in a few months on how this is going. Taking time to recognise things in your life that you are grateful for on a daily basis is also something I aim to get better at.

All in all it was a thoroughly fascinating and engaging two days, with the vast majority of speakers being really engaging and impactful. The timing of each session was well-judged with 40 minute keynotes early in the day falling to 30 and 20 minute sessions later on with frequent breaks, and room to stand as well as sit in the main hall (conference organisers everywhere, take note!). I’d encourage anyone thinking of going to check it out, we are hoping to make it to next year’s event which is in Sweden and the Netherlands.

The end of email?

 

Email is like a tax that we all collect from each other.

Tiago Forte

Over recent years the influence of changes in technology has changed the way we communicate in our personal lives. We are the whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram generation. The number of different available platforms and formats has led to helpful thinking about the relative pros and cons of different channels and the structure of communication.

In business the default method for digital communication is email.

Let’s be honest, email is starting to look more and more like a relic of the 1990’s that really should be going the way of the curtains haircut and Dawson’s Creek. While it’s associated with modern tech, email inherited it’s communication norms from a different era, decades before the likes of Whatsapp showed us how good communication really works in the digital age.

We’re in the Whatsapp generation – Why should we lug around these overflowing message boxes with message piled on message without context, structure or prioritisation?

The Economist, Harvard Business Review and McKinsey have all made the case for messenger apps over email. They make the point that the low “cost” of sending messages, coupled with the unstructured, unprioritised and context-free architecture of the system kills productivity and ensures that knowledge workers can spend as long communicating about the work they do as doing the work itself.

I see four main benefits of chat/messenger based apps (such as Slack, Hipchat, or Teams) for business:

  • Context-driven Structure (different channels can exist for different projects or teams)
  • Prioritisation (notifications can be prioritised for particular channels)
  • Reflects actual communication norms (no “Dear X …. regards, Dan”)
  • Threaded structure & retrieval (previous messages are immediately there when you refer back to a channel, test search is generally effective)

There are also some common criticisms, which I see more as issues with the way we work rather than the system itself. More on all of this below.

What the research says

A number of articles have been written citing the efficiency gains from alternative methods of communication, and the disadvantages of email:

The Economist May 2016 – The Slack Generation

How workplace messaging could replace other missives

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21698659-how-workplace-messaging-could-replace-other-missives-slack-generation

Short summary: workplace messaging systems such as Slack can improve productivity by up to 30% due to: contextual structuring of messages into channels, less formal and more natural style of communication and the ability to work seamlessly across desktop and mobile devices.

Harvard Business Review Feb 2016 – A Modest Proposal – Eliminate Email

https://hbr.org/2016/02/a-modest-proposal-eliminate-email

Short summary: email engenders an unstructured workflow that can be damaging to productivity, this arises from the architecture of the system: the low cost of messages combined with the association of messages with an individual, rather than a project or task. The attention-switching that the need to constantly check email entails is also very disruptive.

McKinsey & Company 2012 – Unlocking value & productivity through social technologies

http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/the-social-economy

Short summary: McKinsey wrote in 2012 that using communication tools that leveraged social-media functionality in a business context could enhance communication, knowledge sharing and collaboration. They estimate this could enhance the productivity of knowledge-workers by 20-25%. They find that the average knowledge-worker spends half their time in the office communicating about their work and a third actually doing the work they were hired to do.

Email for work, particularly internally, is starting to feel more and more like a relic of the 1990’s. Why should we lug around these overflowing message boxes with one message piled on top of another without context, structure or prioritisation?

Business comms for the whatsapp generation

I see four main benefits of chat based apps (such as Slack, Hipchat, or Teams) for business:

  • Prioritisation

Many knowledge workers receive hundreds of emails a day (non-spam), being away from the desk for an hour can easily result in 50+ unread messages at certain times. While all of these messages may be valuable at some level they will generally have a very different prioritisation level,which isn’t obvious without sorting through them. Some might be a cc to keep you in the loop on something, or an update from a supplier (which are valuable but not urgent). Others might be a request to urgently review a piece of client work.

A chat application gives one clear channel for high-priority messaging that can be accessed easily and distinctly from email. We already have this in our personal lives with text and whatsapp. Would you email your friend if you were on the way to meet them and needed to let them know something? It isn’t realistic to rely on email – messenger releases what would otherwise be a bottleneck to making fast decisions in certain areas.

Some of the chat platforms allow notifications to be set up and “pushed” selectively (ie from certain groups but not others), or to set up do-not-disturb messages.

  • Structure

A common criticism of email (repeated in the HBR article cited above) is the lack of structure, and the unstructured workflow that email facilitates can be quite negative for productivity. Messages of varying priority, both internal and external, connected to a myriad of projects or clients land in the inbox one after the other. One of the benefits of the messenger apps is the creation of channels relating to specific teams or project groups, which helps structure incoming messages. Ultimately this facilitates more effective  collaboration (also cited in the Economist article above). Due to the structure, emails quickly become unmanageable when multiple people in a project team reply to the same thread, whereas the messenger format helps responses to be more organised. This is particularly important in environments with more remote-working, which is the direction we are going in. 

  • Casual: reflects actual communication

As noted in the Economist article quoted above, the protocols around composing email are still relatively formal (“Dear X …. Regards Dan”) which in many situations is less efficient than how we would communicate in face-to-face. Messenger applications facilitate communication in the  same way as we would interact in person so can be quicker and more to the point. Email tends to be hierarchical and a one-way broadcast. It does not tend to be a tool that naturally prompts feedback or discussion. 

Some message platforms allow “liking” of messages which – given how social media has evolved – represents a more natural and elegant way of indicating agreement than adding another message to the system.

  • Thread structure

The discrete nature of each email means that communication by email frequently results in searching through an inbox for previous communications on the same subject. There is an advantage to preserving the thread in a group chat channel for everyone to see and easily refer back to. In addition some of the messenger platforms have deep search capability due to indexing all the contents of messages and attachments. I for one would love to get back all those working hours I have wasted searching through old emails for something crucial. If used well this can also serve the function of replacing frequent update meetings where face-to-face meeting needs to co-ordinated (which is time consuming, and also less easy with remote working).

The main challenges that need to be solved in adopting a messaging app for business purposes are around information and data security and setting the right boundaries around work/home life such that it does not lead to unwanted out-of-hours bombardment.

Having used Teams at Redington for about 6 months I’m a huge convert – simply put, it makes your comms more organised, more efficient and urgent. It un-clutters your workflow and will make you more productive.

Criticisms

However, there are some commonly cited criticisms which are worth addressing as I don’t see these as negatives in themselves but rather they reveal deeper issues with how work is structured in general.

Criticism #1 “I’m in too many Teams channels”

This isn’t an issue with the app, it’s because you are working in too many teams! The HBR article The Overcommitted Organisation put this really well in describing the situation that many knowledge-work organisations find themselves in whereby multi-teaming (deploying individuals over a variety of teams simultaneously) whilst efficient can also stretch the organisation. This isn’t the fault of a messaging app per se, but structuring messages in channels is more likely to reveal this as an issue.

Criticism #2 “I can’t copy people in who aren’t in the Team”

Ah yes. The Cc box. That brilliant invention of the email era, that lets us push out our messages to anyone and everyone that we like. Adding and removing names, allowing the channeling of information to ebb and flow between varying groups  as we wish. But think about it for a second. This isn’t how communication should work. We shouldn’t be adding and removing people from groups and teams with each message we send. Those that are on the team should see all the messages. Those that aren’t, don’t need to be bothered by them. By all means welcome new people to the team (and some might join for a short period of time, others longer), but much better to be clear about who is on the team and who isn’t, and messenger apps bring this to the fore, whereas email allows us to be too lazy about it.

Here’s to the end of email!

https://hbr.org/2014/03/stop-using-your-inbox-as-a-to-do-list

Making Messages Stick

Do you remember the last powerpoint presentation you looked through?

Thought not.

There’s an urban legend …

A man goes to bar, is chatted up by pretty girl, who buys him a drink, next thing he wakes up in a bath of ice with a sick feeling, the note says don’t move, call 911. The operator answers “don’t move, someone has stolen your kidney. we’ve had a spate of these recently”.

A powerful and memorable story isn’t it? But none of it true. It’s an urban legend that has been circulating since 1991 and online since 1997.

Why do some ideas stick around for millenia (eg. aesop’s fables: “boy who cried wolf”) and others barely register?

Unworthy or false ideas can often be made sticky, can we make worthy ideas more sticky?

That’s the premise of the excellent Made to Stick written by Chip & Dan Heath (it’s over a decade old, but in the era of fake news remains as relevant as ever.

There are predictable components to a sticky idea, these can help to spot potentially sticky ideas, or to refine messages to make them more sticky.
What are they?

1. Simple . An effective simple messages needs to be “core” and “compact”, ie it needs to be short enough to be conveyed quickly and snappily, and needs to encapsulate the core message. A useful technique is to make use of a “schema” (mental model) that we already have for something else by employing analogy to simplify a message. This simplifies the absorption of a new message by employing a shortcut. The boy who cried wolf is sticky because it compactly captures a fundamental insight on human nature.
2. Unexpected – so far so obvious, but things get sticky when we move from common to uncommon sense, we break the schema. People sit up and take notice.
3. Credible – make it believable through authority or “antiauthority”
4. Concrete – make it real, tangible, something the audience can relate to or easily imagine. try and avoid the abstract, avoid large statistics
5. Emotional – make the audience feel something, connect with the idea
6. Story – above all people remember stories. from birth it’s the way we learn and make sense of the world and studies show that stories tend to stick in the mind far more than statements. in the corporate world particularly so, it can be easily (through the curse of knowledge) to omit the story and focus on the moral. Indeed both story and moral are important but given a choice go for the story not the moral.

there are effectively three types of story narrative
Challenge narrative – David & Goliath, appeal to our perseverance and hard work. inspire us to work harder, take on new challenges and overcome obstacles.
Connection narrative – the good samaritan, Romeo & Juliet, Titanic. they inspire us in social ways. make us want to help and be more tolerant of others. the story of a relationship that bridges a divide
Creativity narrative – The apple on Newton’s head, a story of great genius. It appeals to our desire for a human moment of genius that can create something out of nothing.

There are three killers of sticky ideas
The curse of knowledge – if you know too much you talk in the abstract and jump straight to the morals (omitting the story) and this kills the stickiness of the idea – focus on the concrete and the story.
Decision paralysis – too many options, uncertainty, even irrelevant uncertainty can paralyze us.
Bury the lead – natural tendency to lead with factual information but bury the real kernel
Here’s to worthy & sticky ideas …

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Becoming a Category of One

Do you know a company that defies comparison and exists in a category all by itself …. a “Category of One” as author Joe Calloway puts it?

Are there common, repeatable features of “category of one” firms?

The answer to this question from Joe Calloway’s book is emphatically yes – here are the top nine things I took away …

  1. Think hard about your culture

Culture is vital for category of one. Culture is “how we do things around here”. Culture is the rules, spoken or unspoken that you play by. Culture is what you do when the boss is out of town.

The one thing … all category of one companies have in common is that they talk about the same things over and over – that’s how culture is created. Say it simply, don’t hide your mission away in corporate language.

  1. Greatness is a decision

Greatness needs to be a decision –  to do what it takes to make it happen. It’s not easy and it does require complete commitment to make the changes needed. A commitment to do the heavy lifting of prepration and research. It’s much easier to do something superficial, but ultimately you get what you want most. It’s a moment-of-truth type moment, but you have to get to a gut-level decision (rather than an intellectual decision) to go. Many get the intellectual decision not the “gut level commitment”.

  1. Be ok with change, focus on fast decisions, rather than correct forecasts

Today, major changes don’t happen  occasionally, they happen all the time. It’s more difficult to see them coming. You have to be willing to be wrong in your forecasts. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forecast, it means that instead of success being based on getting things right it’s based on being able to move from one decision to the next.

How to change effectively? Be ok with not knowing what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t mean you’re frozen into inaction, but it means that you know you can make the necessary adjustments when the time comes.

  1. EVERYBODY says that their people are the differentiator…

But if in fact your people really are the differentiator, and you can say that about ALL of them, then this is indeed a powerful advantage. So the challenge becomes to create that advantage and then to prove it. It’s not an easy thing to achieve. But you must be able to explain the benefit of the benefit.

  1. You brand is not your logo or name – it’s what resides in the mind of your customers

what they think of you, what your promise to them is and whether you’ll keep it. To maintain strength requires focus from everyone in the organisation. Inconsistency is a brand killer. You can advertise 24 hours a day and have some superstars. but if you have some people in the organisation that do not fulfill the promise then that could be a critical weakness to the brand,

  1. Accept that quality product, service and price are all a given. Service and experience are primary competitive factors

A quality product, good service and a competitive price are all at the commodity level. If you have those then you are “a pound of nails”. To transcend commodity you have to go to the next level and the best way into that level is knowledge of the customer.

Price and quality are not the primary competitive factors – these are assumed. Service and experience are the primary competitive factors.

Great service is a very powerful competitive and loyalty factor indeed, but is hard to achieve. So many companies will take the easier route and go for gimmicks rather than do the hard work needed to get service right (which is why we have hotel origami).
“At Les Schwab Tyres they RUN to the car!”

  1.  Follow the Customer rules (the single greatest advantage in business)

1. Know more about the customer than anyone else

  1. Get closer to the customer than anyone else
  2. Emotionally connect better than anyone else

If you’re successful it means you know what used to work.

the new reality is that you have to meet a whole load of customer experience benchmarks that have nothing to do with the industry that you are in. it has to do with the business someone else is in. customers remember an experience from one domain, and it becomes the baseline for all others.

  1. What’s your tiebreaker

what’s your tiebreaker? what’s the one thing that will close the deal in you favor and your competition can’t match.

eg – Be extremely easy to work with
Return calls and emails immediately
Resolve issue in favor of the client whenever possible
Keep expenses as low as possible
If I’m not the right fit for the job, recommend a competitor
Free shipping on orders and returns (Zappos)
No change fees and a ridiculously easy to use website (Southwest)

  1. Design the experience

The customer’s experience of doing business with you has become the new competitive factor.

Does your customer’s experience emerge bottom up from a disparate and assorted series of transactions, interactions or was it designed to be that way with each interaction set up to deliver the experience?
It’s great to receive some positive feedback about a particular member of staff in a store who went out of their way. What’s better is a letter that says that whichever store a customer goes to the experience is always the same.

Stumbling on Happiness

The pursuit of happiness is built into the very definition of human desire.

We treat our future selves as if they were our children, spending most of our waking hours seeking out ways to make them happy. So understanding what does seems pretty important for making decisions today …

But do we really know what will make our future selves happy?

Do we make mistakes and incorrect assumptions when we try and predict what will?

The main takeaway from this entertaining and insightful book by Dan Gilbert is emphatically NO and YES to the above questions. The book carefully points out some of the errors we can commonly make when considering the future, including several classic problems:

Problem 1: When we imagine the future there is a whole lot missing. And the things that are missing matter.

Problem 2: When we imagine the future, we are heavily influenced by the present

Problem 3: we have a  psychological immune system, which will begin manufacturing positive views of very negative events with astonishing effectiveness. Therefore, we overestimate the negative implications of negative outcomes

If Dan Gilbert’s book is strong on entertaining and insightful descriptions of the problems, you could argue it is light on concrete solutions (other than the implicit “try and avoid the problem).

Problem 1 – the pitfalls of imagination

Humans are the only animal that can attempt to look into the future (“prospection”) using the frontal lobe & studies show we spend 12% of our thoughts doing so. Why?

Prospection is associated with two things: Prospection & emotion / prospection & control

“As scientists now recognize, the frontal lobe ‘empowers healthy human adults with the capacity to consider the self’s extended existence throughout time’. The frontal lobe was the last part of the brain to develop and is what distinguishes us from apes – and it what explains their shallow, sloping foreheads compared to ours.

But the ways it works has some shortcomings. imagination’s first shortcoming is its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us. No one can imagine every feature and consequence of a future event, hence we must consider some and fail to consider others. The problem is that the features and consequences we fail to consider are often quite important.

Imagination’s second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future (which we explored in the section on presentism).

Imagination’s third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen–in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better, this is due to our psychological immune system.

The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.”

How memories are constructed & how imagination happens

realism (r•ăliz′ m) The belief that things are in reality as they appear to be in the mind.

The general finding–that information acquired after an event alters memory of the event–has been replicated so many times in so many different laboratory and field settings that it has left most scientists convinced of two things.

First, the act of remembering involves ‘filling in’ details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously.

Kant’s new theory of idealism claimed that our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brains, but rather, they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality.

‘The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost–one might say–a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli.’

The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t. No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening.

When we try to overlook, ignore or set aside our current gloomy state and make a forecast about how we will feel tomorrow, we find that it’s a lot like trying to imagine the taste of marshmallow while chewing liver.

Presentism

Because predictions about the future are made in the present, they are inevitably influenced by the present.

We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

The time-share arrangement between perception and imagination is one of the causes of presentism, but it is not the only one.

By imagining an event happening now and then correcting for the fact that it was actually going to happen later, we use a method for making judgments that is quite common but that inevitably leads to error.
Because we naturally use our present feelings as a starting point when we attempt to predict our future feelings, we expect our future to feel a bit more like our present than it actually will.

Presentism occurs because we fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now. this fundamental inability to take the perspective of the person to whom the rest of our lives will happen is the most insidious problem that someone trying to imagine the future can face.

Reality distortion alert! Rose tinted glasses and The fulcrum between stark reality & comforting illusion 

We may see the world through rose-coloured glasses, but rose-coloured glasses are neither opaque nor clear.

They can’t be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it–to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, feed babies and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive.

But they can’t be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters (‘I’m sure this thing will fly’), plant the corn (‘This year will be a banner crop’) and tolerate the babies (‘What a bundle of joy!’).

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

There are many different techniques for collecting, interpreting and analysing facts, and different techniques often lead to different conclusions, which is why scientists disagree about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of supply-side economics and the wisdom of low-carbohydrate diets.

When facts challenge our favored conclusion, we scrutinize them more carefully and subject them to more rigorous analysis.
When we want to believe that someone is smart, then a single letter of recommendation may suffice; but when we don’t want to believe that person is smart, we may demand a thick manila folder full of transcripts, tests and testimony.

We ask whether facts allow us to believe our favoured conclusions and whether they compel us to believe our disfavoured conclusions.

Distorted views of reality are made possible by the fact that experiences are ambiguous–that is, they can be credibly viewed in many ways, some of which are more positive than others.

To ensure that our views are credible, our brain accepts what our eye sees. To ensure that our views are positive, our eye looks for what our brain wants. The conspiracy between these two servants allows us to live at the fulcrum of stark reality and comforting illusion.

Ignorance of our psychological immune systems causes us to mispredict the circumstances under which we will blame others, but it also causes us to mispredict the circumstances under which we will blame ourselves.
Why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions.

The volunteers in a study valued the club most when its initiation was most painful.
Intense suffering triggers the very processes that eradicate it, while mild suffering does not, and this counterintuitive fact can make it difficult for us to predict our emotional futures.
Apparently, inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defences that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate that this will happen.
Unexplained events seem rare, and rare events naturally have a greater emotional impact than common events do. We are awed by a solar eclipse but merely impressed by a sunset despite the fact that the latter is by far the more spectacular visual treat.
We are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than an inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant situation that we cannot escape than of one we can. And yet, we rarely choose action over inaction, pain over annoyance and commitment over freedom.

The processes by which we generate positive views are many: we pay more attention to favourable information, we surround ourselves with those who provide it and we accept it uncritically. These tendencies make it easy for us to explain unpleasant experiences in ways that exonerate us and make us feel better. The price we pay for our irrepressible explanatory urge is that we often spoil our most pleasant experiences by making good sense of them.

Comparisons

We try to make choices that will make us happy: where to live, with whom to work, whom to marry, how to spend our spare time.

Choices often involve comparison between two alternatives.

But comparisons are not as unbiased as we would like –

Studies show that people are much more likely to agree to pay a small cost after having first contemplated a large one, in part because doing so makes the small cost seems so bearable.

Alas, we are all too easily fooled by such side-by-side comparisons, which is why retailers work so hard to ensure that we make them.

One of the most insidious things about side-by-side comparison is that it leads us to pay attention to any attribute that distinguishes the possibilities we are comparing.

In a study a group of students was offered a choice of where to go on a trip. One of the options was “Extremia” which had some good attributes and some bad ones. When students were asked to choose by eliminating places they didn’t want to go they tended to eliminate Extremia. However when they chose by looking at places they did want to go they chose Extremia. Why would people both select and reject Extremia? Because when we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes.

Los Angeles vs Columbus. It is a commonly-cited fact that in surveys Americans cite “living in California” as something that would make them more happy (however Californians are not more happy than the average American). Why? Climate is an obvious reason why Los Angeles appeals ahead of, say, Columbus Ohio.

While Los Angeles has a better climate than Columbus, climate is just one of many things that determine a person’s happiness–and yet all those other things are missing from the mental image. If we were to add some of these missing details to our mental image of beaches and palm trees–say, traffic, supermarkets, airports, sports teams, cable rates, housing costs, earthquakes, landslides, and so on–

Comparisons through time

When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.
When volunteers are asked to ‘imagine a good day’, they imagine a greater variety of events if the good day is tomorrow than if the good day is a year later. Because a good day tomorrow is imagined in considerable detail, it turns out to be a lumpy mixture of mostly good stuff (‘I’ll sleep late, read the paper, go to the movies and see my best friend’) with a few unpleasant chunks (‘But I guess I’ll also have to rake the stupid leaves’). On the other hand, a good day next year is imagined as a smooth puree of happy episodes.

The facts are these: (a) value is determined by the comparison of one thing with another; (b) there is more than one kind of comparison we can make in any given instance; and (c) we may value something more highly when we make one kind of comparison than when we make a different kind of comparison.

context, frequency and recency are three of the factors that determine which meaning we will infer when we encounter an ambiguous stimulus.

But surely these problems get better with experience?

Unfortunately for us, the key answer to this question, as presented by Gilbert is – NO!
Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times, the wealth of experience that young people admire does not always pay clear dividends.

We remember feeling as we believe we must have felt. The problem with this error of retrospection is that it can keep us from discovering our errors of prospection.

Our memory for emotional episodes is overly influenced by unusual instances, closing moments and theories about how we must have felt way back then, all of which gravely compromise our ability to learn from our own experience.

One minute guide to real-world AI implementation 

McKinsey just published an excellent and comprehensive paper covering how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can deliver real value for business.

tl;dr

The only issue – at 80 pages it’s a lot to read.

A lot of the use cases focus on retail, energy and education, one angle I find particularly are the read-across of these examples into service based and business-to-business environments. There are definitely some relevant points that could map to a services/B2B worlds: for example the automation of admin tasks for teaches, more targeted sales and marketing and more personalised customer service.

Here’s my take on the key points from the document:

1. No shortcuts: first data & digital, then AI

AI becomes impactful when it has access to large amounts of high-quality data and is integrated into automated work processes. AI is not a shortcut to these digital foundations. Rather, it is a powerful extension of them.

The firs thing firm’s need to do is come up with a real business case for AI that relates to the firm’s strategy, this requires separating the hype and buzz around AI from its actual capabilities in a specific, real-world context. It includes a realistic view of AI’s capabilities and an honest accounting of its limitations, which requires at least a high-level grasp of how AI works and how it differs from conventional technological approaches.
Each new generation of tech builds on the previous one – this suggests AI can deliver significant competitive advantages, but only for firms that are fully committed to it. Take any ingredient away—a strong digital starting point, serious adoption of AI, or a proactive strategic posture—and profit margins are much less impressive. This is consistent with McKinsey findings in the broader digital space.
Technology is a tool and in itself does not deliver competitiveness improvements.

2. Areas to focus on to create real value: project, produce, promote or provide 

To fulfil the expectations being heaped upon it, AI will need to deliver economic applications that significantly reduce costs, increase revenue, and enhance asset utilization.

Mckinsey categorized the ways in which AI can create value in four areas:(1) enabling companies to better project and forecast to anticipate demand, optimize R&D, and improve sourcing; (2) increasing companies’ ability to produce goods and services at lower cost and higher quality; (3) helping promote offerings at the right price, with the right message, and to the right target customers; and (4) allowing them to provide rich, personal, and convenient
user experiences

3. Data ecosystem & staff culture to the fore 

Firms must conduct sensible analysis of what the most valuable AI use cases are. They should also build out the supporting digital assets and capabilities. Indeed, the core elements of a successful AI transformation are the same as those for data and analytics generally. This includes building the data ecosystem, adopting the right techniques and tools, integrating technology into workplace processes, and adopting an open, collaborative culture while reskilling the workforce

4. Take a portfolio approach focused on use cases in short, medium and long term, be lean, fail fast & learn

A portfolio-based approach to AI adoption cases, looking at use cases over a one- to five-year horizon, can be helpful.

In the immediate future, McKinsey suggest a focus on use cases where there are proven technology solutions today that can be adopted at scale, such as robotic process automation and some applications of machine learning. Further out, identify use cases where a technology is emerging but not yet proven at scale. Over the longer term, McKinsey’s view is to pick one or two high-impact but unproven use cases and partner with academia or other third parties to innovate, gaining a potential first-mover advantage in the future. Across all horizons, a “test and learn” approach can help validate the business case, conducting time-limited experiments to see what really works and then scaling up successes. Fast, agile approaches are important.

5. Don’t be a hammer in search of a nail … 

To ensure a focus on the most valuable use cases, AI initiatives should be assessed and co-led by both business and technical leaders. Given the significant advancements in AI technologies in recent years, there is a tendency to compartmentalize accountability for AI with functional leaders in IT, digital, or innovation. This can result in a “hammer in search of a nail” outcome, or technologies being rolled out without compelling use cases. The orientation should be the opposite: business led and value focused. This business-led approach follows successful adoption approaches in other digital waves such as mobile, social, and analytics.

McKinsey graphics on AI: