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 –
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 –
- 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.
- 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!).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
McKinsey just published an excellent and comprehensive paper covering how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can deliver real value for business.
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
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.
It’s good to reflect, like many of you I spend a lot of time looking forwards, setting goals, moving forward, thinking about what we’re going to achieve. That’s what gets you far, but I’ve learnt it’s also important to look back, see how far you’ve come. That gives motivation, helps push on through the inevitable dips. Today was a good day to reflect – being 5 years since I started work at Redington.
5 years isn’t that long, in the context of a whole career, but its long enough to make a decent dent in things (if not in the universe then at least in one’s own small part of it) and really achieve stuff. Of course it’s also a period of time which will include some dips and speed bumps along the way (important to recognise that too). I do feel genuinely proud of what we’ve achieved and where we’ve come over last 5 years, more of that later.
As most of you’ll know I didn’t join Redington as a startup. I don’t have any stories of working in Rob’s bedroom or Dawid’s attic (as fun as I’m sure that was). I joined a 45 ish person firm in 2012 that was already working with many of the largest pension schemes in the U.K. It’s easy to remember my first days/weeks as it was just before & during the London olympics in summer of 2012. As many of you will know I spent the previous 5 years living and working in Sydney(note – in case there is still any doubt I’m not Australian: David spent the first year I worked with him thinking I was Australian, and introducing me as such – thought initially was a joke then got a bit awkward). During my years in Sydney I had a desk looking out over the harbour – straight to the ocean, getting the ferry to work. Immediately prior to starting at Redington I’d been travelling 4 months south east Asia. In fact I landed in London on a sat morning from a kick boxing camp in Thailand, started work on the Monday having bought a pair of shoes and a shirt over the weekend. So I turned up to old street on the first morning, mega relaxed, great tan and probably more of a hint of an Australian accent than I’d care to admit. Clearly neither lasted for long!
Of those 45 people around 25 are still here – e.g. Rob, Dawid, David, Pete, Alex, Jonny, Karen, Steven + others. And about 100 have joined since. It’s given me a great amount of pride and pleasure to build what we have here over those last 5 years & I really hope those people who’ve been around for some or all of that journey share that feeling, I really enjoy doing great things as a team and it’s great to look back and see what we’ve achieved together, inevitably there are dips and road bumps, and false starts – but seeing things in the round it’s overwhelmingly positive, couple of examples
Clients are of course a big part of the story of the last 5 years, and doing great things for clients, doing the right things, is at the heart of it. Too many examples to even scratch the surface but two in particular to mention:
- Doing the work to put the second LDI manager in place for the PPF. (2013) A highlight because, many bright and capable people in that organisation and they select from a panel of top consultants, so always a privilege to be chosen to work for them. But also because of the reach and impact of the PPF – supporting pension payments to a quarter of a million and counting pensioners & their families from schemes of failed companies.
- SJP, winning in competition a mandate to advise SJP on their fund range (2014), here I really started to see the power of the combination of skills we had in the firm, and it was really rewarding to win that mandate as part of a team alongside Pete, Pat and Rob.
Second theme is building assets internally, again so many things there I could mention, but one stands out:
Seeing blender and later toaster get built up from nothing to what we have today (2013-present) – observed that from a distance rather than being closely involved – hope that those of you partly or fully involved in that look on that with a great deal of pride, developing something like that from scratch isn’t the sort of thing you get to do many times in a career, great team effort to have produced the asset we have today over that period of time. That’s just one example and I know there’s a lot more to come there in the future too.
Third theme learning – learnt a lot, surprised me in a way, was a bit unexpected. Not that I thought I was the “finished article” back when I joined the firm but having spent much of my 20’s doing exams (university, masters, actuarial) and starting work, I suppose at the time I thought it was natural that I would be using those skills more rather than learning new ones, I was completely wrong on that! I might even go as far as to say I’ve learnt more so far during my 30’s than I did in my 20’s – certainly more relevant and deeper stuff. Particularly grateful of learnings from Rob, David, Mitesh. things like: knowing your inner chimp, tackling tough conversations, setting the context, working in the feel space. If you’re interested I’ve blogged in more detail about this here and here.
So, to sum up, Seth Godin put this really well in one of his blogs – a manifesto for small teams doing important work – and that really sums up how I feel about working here (and I know that’s how many of you feel as well) – done a lot of important work over last 5 years , with the team we have today am confident we do even more over next 5. Genuinely mean it when I say that the energy and enthusiasm you all have inspires me, pushes me and gives me that spring in my step each morning. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, but above all really working at Redington has kept life interesting, really means a lot to me to work somewhere you have a spring in your step walking into the office, a sense of purpose, some thing that gets you out of bed each morning, that’s what it’s about isn’t it, at the end of the day.
- Hack your own productivity, figure out what works for you
As “knowledge workers” we all carry out a wide variety of different cognitive tasks each day: some are repetitive, some are simple but require a high degree of accuracy, some are creative while others involve problem solving or co-ordination of others. Some involve significant willpower while others may not.
Finding individual ways to maximise our own productivity can be hugely helpful – I firmly believe that the productivity of knowledge workers can easily vary by a factor of 4 or 5 times depending on various factors and circumstances, and some of these are quite simple to understand and change.
Things like choosing which tasks to take on at different points in the day, selecting the appropriate space to work in (working from home being great for some tasks, bad for others), harnessing and using your willpower most effectively and balancing requirements to meet and consult with others with working individually. Creating focus on what’s important (rather than simply urgent), and avoiding cognitive switching.
I was influenced in a lot of this thinking by Charles Duhigg‘s excellent book Smarter, Faster better which I discussed in more detail here. Mitesh Sheth also wrote up this excellent list of productivity hacks, which I contributed to.
2. Approach the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be
2016 was a year of surprises and shocks at a macro political level. Some of the events that took place challenged the world views of people – including myself. The result of the EU referendum left many people – myself included- feeling more than a little frustrated and angry.
One positive I take from this is the opportunity it presents to acquire really valuable wisdom and experience – for those people open enough to be able to move past the frustration and approach the world as it is.
The reality is, disruptive events will create both opportunities and challenges. Spending time fighting the way the world is probably isn’t the best use of precious resources of mental energy and focus.
3. Understand the Building Blocks of Change
Changing habits at work is hard. Rolling out new systems and processes and changing old ones. It’s so vital to keep operating efficiently, but the extra burden to individuals of change in the short term will also be resisted.
This great blog by Mckinsey helped me greatly in my understanding of the 4 key requirements for workplace change:
- An understand of why change is necessary
- The capability to make the change
- The alignment of incentives and rewards
- Role modelling by senior and influential individuals
There is a lot of overlap here with takeaways of books such as Nudge and Inside the Nudge Unit. All fascinating and really powerful stuff if you can find ways to implement day to day. It feels like behavioural insights are rightly having more and more impact on policy & decisions across organisations as knowledge and appreciation of the field grows. Great to see this happening and I look forward to more insights in 2017.
4. Beware the Narrative Fallacy
The hearing and telling of stories is fundamental to who we are as humans. It’s hard-wired into us. It’s part of how we understand and make sense of an uncertain world. It was the way our ancient ancestors explained things to each other and kept children away from danger. We are fundamentally inclined to believe convincing stories.
But there’s a problem, far too often in today’s world stories are constructed that ascribe too great a role to intrinsic characteristics such as talent and too little to luck. Stories dwell on the one thing that worked, ignoring the many that didn’t. Stories can easily make us fall prey to the availability or representative bias, skewing our decision making systematically in unhelpful ways.
Making effective decisions therefore, involves getting beyond stories into data, asking the right questions, and seeking evidence (where it can be found). Testing theories, rejecting hypotheses, trying to assess against a counterfactual and learning as much from the trials that didn’t work as those that did.
2016 was the fifth year-end that I’ve been a part of the team at Redington. As we close one year and start a new one it’s a great opportunity to say thankyou to all my fantastic colleagues who genuinely keep life interesting and make it worth getting up for work each morning – which is what really matters, isn’t it? Here’s to a great 2017 and beyond.
Feel like I’ve managed to read a decent amount in 2015, as always would like to have read more though!
With a bias to non-fiction, here are the 3 the books that really stood out for me in 2015.
1. The Success Equation (Michael Mauboissin)
I wrote about this one in more detail here, but in short I loved the approach the author took in laying out various quantitative frameworks for distinguishing the roles of skill and luck (most were illustrated using sports data). There were a number of interesting takeaways for finance.
2. The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)
Hardly an original choice, given this book was riding high in the best seller lists for most of the year. I don’t read much fiction, but couldn’t put this one down. I also recommended it to several other other people who all ended up feeling the same. A real thriller brilliantly told from several perspectives, I really felt like I got to know the characters. If you are one of the few people that hasn’t already read this then I recommend you get your hands on a copy asap. I am certainly waiting keenly for Paula Hawkins next novel.
3. Incognito (David Eagleman)
I seem to be reading a lot of books about meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) recently. Unsure if it’s just a “phase” or reflective of a glut of books being published on the subject. Anyway, I found this one, which ranges over a wide area of neuroscience hugely interesting, difficult to put down and really well written. There were real “aha” moments on each page and at no point did I feel “bogged down” by weight of thought as I sometimes do with these sort of books. I think Eagleman does a great job of keeping the subject matter readable and accessible, making good use of examples and stories where appropriate.
The main takeaways or themes of the book I would say are as follows:
Our perception of the reality around us isn’t quite what we think it is, and by understanding the way the brain creates this perception we can understand how it can be led astray.
A huge amount of our behaviour is governed by automated neuro-programs that are “burned down” into the circuitry of our brains, with little or no access from the conscious level (and this is much more efficient)
This calls into question the extent to which free will is actually “free” (are we making a conscious choice, or responding in a pre-programmed way)
This poses challenging questions for the legal system, which currently operates on the assumption that humans more or less start out the same. Perhaps as our understanding of neuroscience evolves we will need to revisit the principles behind the legal system.
One of the amazing things about our brain’s evolution is the flexibility to conquer new problems and “burn-down” into our unconscious neuro level the programs for solving them – so that they become automatic (such as learning to drive or ride a bike)