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 –
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 …
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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,
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!”
Follow the Customer rules (the single greatest advantage in business)
1. Know more about the customer than anyone else
- Get closer to the customer than anyone else
- 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
A mixture of task & communication checks help manage the problem of proliferating complexity in the modern word – that’s the relatively simple premise of Atul Gawande‘s short, but excellent book on checklists – The Checklist Manifesto.
The book is driven mainly from a medical context, that being the author’s background, and centred around the astounding data from a study supported by the World Health Organisation into the power of checklists. Although the context is broadened to be applicable to many facets of modern life- examples and applications are also cited from construction, aviation and even finance. The humble checklist can dramatically improve baseline performance – perhaps more so than even the best new drugs or surgical technologies.
Gawande draws a key distinction between two types of error: (1) errors of ignorance (where we don’t know enough) and (2) errors of ineptitude (failing to correctly apply what we do know. Most of the failures in the modern world are of the second kind.
What were the key insights?
Well, here’s a checklist –