Principles: Work Principles 3 (part 7 of 14)

A believably-weighted idea meritocracy is the best system for making effective decisions.

Unlike Lombardi, whose success depended on having his players follow his instructions, I need my players to be independent thinkers who could bang around their different points of view and reach better conclusions than any one of us could come up with on our own. I needed to create an environment in which everyone had the right and the responsibility to make sense of things for themselves and to fight openly for what they think is best – and where the best thinking won out. I need a real idea meritocracy, not some theoretical version of one. That’s because an idea meritocracy – i.e., a system that brings together smart, independent thinkers and has them productively disagree to come up with the best possible collective thinking and resolve their disagreements in a believably-weighted way – will outperform any other decision-making system.

Our idea-meritocratic system evolved over the decades. At first, we just argued like hell with each other about what was best and by thrashing through our disagreements came up with better paths than if we had made our decisions individually. But as Bridgwater grew and our range of disagreements and needs to resolve them changed, we became more explicit in how this idea meritocracy would work. We needed as system that could both effectively weigh the believability of different people to come to the best decisions and do that in a way that was so obviously fair everyone would recognize it as such. I knew that without such a system, we would lose both the best thinking and the best thinkers, and I’d be stuck with either kiss-asses or subversives who kept their disagreements and hidden resentments to themselves.

For all this work, I believe and still believe that we need to be radically truthful and radically transparent with each other.

Radical Truth and Radical Transparency

By radical truth, I mean not filtering one’s thoughts and one’s questions, especially the critical ones. If we don’t talk openly about our issues and have paths for working through them, we won’t have partners who collectively own our outcomes.

By radical transparency, I mean giving most everyone the ability to see most everything. To give people anything less than total transparency would make them vulnerable to others’ spin and deny them the ability to figure things out for themselves. Radical transparency reduces harmful office politics and the risks of bad behavior because bad behavior is more likely to take place behind closed doors than out in the open.

Some people have called this way of operating radical straightforwardness.

I knew that if radical truth and radical transparency didn’t apply across the board, we would develop two classes of people at the company – those with power who are in the know, and those who aren’t – so I pushed them both to their limits. To me, a pervasive Idea Meritocracy = Radical Truth + Radical Transparency + Believability-Weighted Decision Making.

From a small group of people arguing informally about what’s true and what to do about it, we developed approaches, technologies, and tools over the last forty years that have ten us to a whole other level, which has been eye-opening and invaluable in ways that yo can read about in the tools chapter at the end of this book. We have always been unwavering in providing this environment, and we let the people who didn’t like it self-select themselves out of the company.

By being radically truthful and radically transparent, we could see that we all have terribly incomplete and/or distorted perspectives. This isn’t unique to Bridgwater – you would recognize the same thing if you could see into the heads of the people around you. As explained in Understand That People Are Wired Very Differently, people tend to see the same situations in dramatically different ways, depending on how their brains are wired.

Seeing this will help you evolve. At first most people remain stuck in their own heads, stubbornly clinging to the idea that their views are best and that something is wrong with other people who don’t see things their way. But when they repeatedly face the questions “How do you know that you’re not the wrong one?” and “What Process would you use to draw upon these different perspectives to make the best decisions?” they are forced to confront their own believability and see things through others’ eyes as well as their own. This shift in perspective is what produces great collective decision making. Ideally, this takes place in an “open-source” way, with the best ideas flowing freely, living, dying, and producing rapid evolution based on their merits.

Most people initially find this process very uncomfortable. While most appreciate it intellectually, they typically are challenged by it emotionally because it requires them to separate themselves from their ego’s attachment to being right and try to see what they have a hard time seeing. A small minority get it and love it from the start, and a slightly larger minority can’t stand it and leave the company, and the majority stick with it, get better at it with time, and eventually wouldn’t want to operate any other way.

While operating this way might sound difficult and inefficient, it is actually extremely efficient. In fact, it is much harder and much less efficient to work in an organization in which most opal don’t know what their colleagues are really thinking. Also, when people can’t be totally open, they can’t be themselves. As Harvard developmental psychologist Bob Kegan, who has studied Bridgwater, likes to say, in most companies people are doing two jobs: their actual job and the job of managing others’ impressions of how they’re doing their job. For us, that’s terrible. We’ve found that bringing everything to the surface 1) removes the need to try to look good and 2) eliminates time required to guess what people are thinking. In doing so, it creates more meaningful work and more meaningful relationships.