Fifteen years ago, I got promoted to manage a team of twelve. I saw myself as a young, aspirational and enthusiastic manager, guiding these young(er) bunch of men and women on a challenging journey to deliver a critical piece of software in a short period of time. Towards the end of the year, the software was subjected to thorough testing. Around the same time, I too got tested – a 360-degree feedback from my team on my performance.

The software performed well. I got thrashed. The team basically said, “We don’t like you(r style of managing)”.

I had a dilemma. Should I switch to being an individual contributor and play to my strengths in technology? Or should I learn from my mistakes, grow as a person and try to connect better with my team?

It will be several attempts, several years and many such corrective feedback cycles before I did better. On hindsight, I should have…

We need to think clearly in such situations. That is not easy.

These days, when I face a complex situation, I try a principle suggested by the billionaire, Ray Dalio. It is deceptively simple, but very effective. The method involves thinking through three questions and filling your answers across three columns on a piece of paper. Every time I fill those columns, I feel better. I feel I have understood, even if not conquered the complex territory I am navigating.

Here is the principle:

  1. Decide what you want
  2. Find out what is true
  3. Figure out what to do, based on 1 and 2.

I did warn you, it appears simple.

Ray Dalio has filled 592 pages of his book with many such principles derived from his life and work. Like a catch surprising the fisherman, this principle popped out of the first few pages, and I have only read fifty or so.

I stopped after the first catch, because I wanted to taste it first. As I began applying this principle, a key insight was how (1) and (2) are sometimes distinct. Even, mutually exclusive. The trick is to construct a bridge from columns 1 and 2, leading into 3.

If I had this clarity fifteen years ago, I would have identified my want as, “My team to deliver on the goals on time, on budget, with high quality, not getting burnt along the way, not getting micro-managed”.

I would have scribbled under the second column, “It is true, however, the team is under pressure; I am under the pump. Also true that the team has not been given a choice, not given a voice, and not clear on why we were doing what we were doing”.

If I had these three distinct columns, I would have not jumped to the actions. I would have learnt to be a bit more objective, a bit more sensible. Would have learnt to remove “I” from the equation and listen to what the team had to say regarding the goal pursuit.

On hindsight, I should have…

As I encounter this principle fifteen years late, I stop. “What is reality telling me? What are the constraints? What am I not thinking about?”

“What is true?”

I am still exploring this principle. Do let me know if this works for you.