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.
My beachside reading on the recent winter trip to Australia was the excellent “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis.
Obviously when it comes to Michael Lewis expectations are high, both for the quality of the writing and depth of the research behind it. This is no exception. Some of the specific elements are familiar but Lewis does great job of weaving the intellectual content of the Kahneman/Tversky collaboration into a compelling story about their lives and the contemporary history of the time. Which are plenty interesting in their own right. I’d say the only negative points would be an oddly-placed chapter at the start which rehashes many of the ideas from MoneyBall (it was interesting, just seemed oddly placed relative to the rest of the book) and the slight lack of compete chronological sense of order that comes with the style of hopping around and pursuing digressions. It probably makes the book more readable, to be honest, but I found myself having to go back and review sections to get the full Kahneman/Tversky timeline over the years straight in my mind.
Some of the key behavioural science insights of Kahneman and Tversky that Lewis covers and articulates so well include the following.
Kahneman and Tversky understood that the errors the mind made offered you at least a partial insight into the mechanism behind decision making. A bit like optical illusions offering an insight into the workings of vision.
“Features of similarity” Comparing two objects: the mind tends to make a list of features, count up and compare the features that two objects have in common, in particular one object with reference to the other. for example Tel Aviv is frequently thought to be like NYC but NYC is not thought to be like Tel Aviv. NYC has more noticeable features than Tel Aviv. An absence of a feature is also a feature. “Similarity increases with the addition of common features, or the absence of distinctive features.
Transitivity in decision making. transitivity violated if someone picks tea over coffee, coffee over hot chocolate and then turns around and picks hot chocolate over tea. The features of similarity model helps explain why people will violate transitivity in this way. The context in which a choice is presented affects the choice. When presented with a choice people aren’t assessing each object on a linear scale and evaluating relative to some representative model of ideality, they are essentially counting up features they notice. but the context in which a choice is presented can have a big effect on the features that are noticeable. for examples two Americans meeting in NY vs meeting in Togo. “The similarity of objects is modified by the way in which they are classified”.
First heuristic – representativeness. When people make judgements they compare whatever they are judging to some model in their minds. How closely do the approaching clouds represent my mental model of a storm? How closely does Jeremy Lin represent my model of an NBA basketball player? It’s why players with Man Boobs don’t get selected in the NBA. It’s not that the rule of thumb is always wrong – in many ways it can work quite well. But when it does go wrong it does so in systematic ways.
Second heuristuc – availability. the more easily you can recall a scenario to mind the more “available” it is, and the more probably we find it to be. For example words starting with K vs words with K as the third letter. Again can often work well. But not in situations where misleading examples come easily to mind.
People predict by making up stories
People predict very little and explain everything
People live under uncertainty whether they like it or not
People believe they can tell the future if they work hard enough
People accept any explanation as long as it fits the facts
The handwriting was on the wall, it was just the ink that was invisible.
Man is a deterministic device thrown into a probabilistic universe
Theory of regret – emotion linked to “coming close and failing”. it skewed decisions where people are faced between a sure thing and a gamble. regret is associated with acts that modify the status quo. The pain is greater when a bad decision led to a modification of the status quo vs one that led to a retention of the status quo. Regret is closely linked to responsibility – the more control you felt you had.
Anticipation of regret is actually as powerful as regret itself. We look at a decision and anticipate the regret we might feel. Often we do not experience actual regret as it is too difficult to be sure of the counterfactual.
This all contravened expected utility theory (which was a central part of some economic models of how individuals made decisions). Expected utility theory wasn’t just wrong, it couldn’t defend against contradictions. The Allais paradox was a good example that violated utility theory. it basically had two examples framed at different probability levels but with the same utility tradeoff underlying both of them, people chose differently depending on the framing of medium odds vs long odds.
A greater sensitivity to negative outcomes – a heightened sensitivity to pain was helpful for survival. A happy species endowed with infinite appreciation of pleasures and low sensitivity to pain would probably not survive the evolutionary battle.
Prospect theory – people approach risk very differently when it comes to losses rather than gains. risk seeking in the domain of losses and risk averse in the domain of gains. people respond to changes rather than absolute levels. but changes vs some reference point, some representation of the status quo. In experiments this is usually clearly definable, in the real world, not so much.
People also do not respond to probability in a straightforward manner. people will pay dearly for certainty. But they will treat a 90% probability as less likely than that (they do not treat a 90 chance as nine times more likely than a 10 chance). When it comes to small probabilities they do not treat a 4% chance as twice as likely than a 2% chance. if you tell someone one in a billion they treat it more like one in ten thousand – and worry too much about it (and pay more than they ought to rid themselves of that worry).
One consequence of prospect theory is that you should be able to alter the way people approach risk (risk seeking vs risk averse) by presenting problems framed in terms of losses rather than framed in terms of gains.
The endowment effect (Thaler) – people attach a strange amount of extra value to what they own (compared to what they don’t). they fail to make logical trades and switches.
The Undoing Project. The title itself refers to a theory similar to regret: counterfactual emotions, the feelings that spurred peoples’ minds to spin alternative realities. The intensity of emotions of “unrealized reality” were proportional to two things: the desirability of the alternative, and the possibility of the alternative.
Experiences that led to regret and frustration were not always easy to undo. Frustrated people needed to undo some feature of their environment, whereas regretful people needed to undo their own actions. but the basic rules of undoing are the same, they require a more or less plausible path to an alternative state. Imgination wasn’t a flight with limitless possibilities, rather it’s a tool for making sense of a world of unlimited possibilities by limiting them. The imagination obeyed ruled: the rules of undoing. The more items that were required to undo the less likely the mind would undo them. “the more consequences an event has the larger the change that is involved in eliminating the event.” also, an event becomes gradually less changeable the more it recedes in time.