Radical Honesty

A hackathon is like the Apprentice meets Dragons’ Den — you work in teams to come up with a business idea which you then pitch to a panel. I’d travelled down to London to make a name for myself at a MedTech hackathon.

One of the judges was a venture capitalist from California. At the open, he asked a roomful of ~100 nervous students to pitch our initial ideas. I’d later find out amongst one of many eccentricities, he carried around a wad full of cash. If he liked your idea he would give you a $100 bill.

I jumped at the opportunity to pitch first (probably hyped from my latest self-help book). I pitched my idea, an app with which HIV patients could track their CD4 count and thus infectivity (this was back when apps were cool) 🦠

He didn’t give me a $100 note.

Later I saw him looking annoyed so I approached him to introduce myself:

“Who are you?”

“I pitched the HIV app idea”

“Oh yeah, your idea was total garbage”

“Ok”

“Why would anyone want to use that? That’s spam, seriously”

A couple of years later and I agree with him.

Bridgewater Associates 💰

Ray Dalio believes in radical honesty. At Bridgewater, they manage $160bn of assets — so there’s no room for poor decision making. Google trialled 41 shades of blue to decide on the colour of hyperlinks with the highest click-through-rate. At scale, little things matter a lot. Consistently making 10% better decisions at Bridgewater can mean ±$16 billion.

But sometimes companies say things you know they don’t mean. Not the case at Bridgewater, they live radical honesty — this is an email a junior associate sent to CEO Ray Dalio following a meeting:

From: Jim H To: Ray; Lionel K; Greg J; Randal S; David A Subject: Feedback on ABC Meeting . . .

Ray- you deserve a “D-” for your performance today in the ABC meeting and everyone that was in the room that saw you agrees on that harsh assessment (give or take half a grade). This was especially disappointing… [because] we held a specific planning meeting yesterday to ask you to focus tightly on culture and portfolio structuring because we had only 2 hours to have you cover those two topics, me cover the investment process, have Greg do the observatory and have Randal do implementation. Instead, you took a total of 62 minutes (I measured) but worse, you rambled for 50 minutes on what I think was portfolio structuring topics and only then got to culture and you talked about that for 12 minutes. It was obvious to all of us that you did not prepare at all because there is no way you could have been that disorganized at the outset if you had prepared.

Principles: Life and Work, Ray Dalio

There are benefits to this approach. Dalio saw a traditional work culture plagued with groupthink and politics. He wanted to get past the niceties and hierarchy, and install an idea meritocracy — a management structure in which the best ideas come through no matter who has them.

For this to work, anyone needed to be able to challenge anyone else. And no secrets either, almost all meetings are recorded and are available for anyone in the firm to watch.

The Problem in Medicine 🏥

I once heard a story about a hospital consultant who walked into an MDT meeting late. Instead of taking the one free seat — he asked a nurse to stand up. He then stacked her chair on top of the other chair and sat on both of them. He liked sitting on two chairs, apparently.

At Bridgewater, he would have been called out. But in Medicine, no one challenged him — there’s a strict hierarchy. This has benefits, there’s no finger pointing when something goes wrong — it’s always the consultant’s responsibility (save the Bawa-Garba case).

Google have a flat hierarchy, meaning that every engineer they hire becomes a ‘project manager’. But when everyone’s a project manager, who is the project manager?

I once tried radical honesty in a 'work environment’. It went just as well as you might imagine.

The Rest of the World 🌍

Not everyone believes in radical honesty. Whilst Tesla was flirting with bankruptcy, Elon Musk kept quiet:

To the extent that the financial situation unnerved Musk, he rarely if ever let it show to employees. “Elon did a great job of not burdening people with those worries,” said Spikes. “He always communicated the importance of being lean and of success, but it was never ‘if we fail, we’re done for.’ He was very optimistic.”

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Neither do Instagram’s founders:

He and Krieger weren’t sleeping well. There were plenty of strong competitors. But pretending things were going more smoothly than they actually were was part of the job of being a startup CEO. Everyone needed to think you were on the right track.

No Filter by Sarah Frier

Some people call Bridgewater’s radical honesty a cult. Dalio says it’s the opposite:

Cults demand unquestioning obedience. Thinking for yourself and challenging each other’s ideas is anti-cult behavior, and that is the essence of what we do at Bridgewater.

A Gift 🎁

Radical honesty is the antithesis of a Trojan Horse. It’s a gift wrapped up in an insult and large companies realise this. As part of the creative consumer phenomenon, firms see customer complaints as a treasure trove for innovation.

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning

Bill Gates

A (white) teacher at school once told me:

You Asian boys are very good. But you don’t present yourselves’ very well in [medical school] interviews

(followed by advice on how to improve)

One tweet and the mob would have cancelled him. Was it politically correct? No. Helpful and well intentioned? Certainly.

I like radically honest people.

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