In his TED talk, Stephen Duneier explains that what defines him are not titles, but an approach to decision making that transformed him from someone who struggled with simple tasks to a guy who is continuously achieving even his most ambitious dreams.
For thirty years, he has applied cognitive science to investing, business and life. The result has been the turnaround of numerous institutional businesses, career best returns for managers who have adopted his methods, the development of a $1.25 billion dollar hedge fund and a rapidly shrinking bucket list.
“Every one of my report cards basically said the same thing: Steven is a very bright young boy, if only he would just settle down and focus.”
“What they didn’t realize was I wanted that even more than they wanted it for me, I just couldn’t. And so, from kindergarten straight through the 2nd year of college, I was a really consistent C, C- student. But then going into my junior year, I’d had enough. I thought I want to make a change. I’m going to make a marginal adjustment, and I’m going to stop being a spectator of my decision-making and start becoming an active participant.”
“And so, that year, instead of pretending, again, that I would suddenly be able to settle down and focus on things for more than five or ten minutes at a time, I decided to assume I wouldn’t. And so, if I wanted to achieve the type of outcome that I desire – doing well in school – I was going to actually have to change my approach. And so I made a marginal adjustment. If I would get an assignment, let’s say, read five chapters in a book, I wouldn’t think of it as five chapters, I wouldn’t even think of it as one chapter. I would break it down into these tasks that I could achieve, that would require me to focus for just five or ten minutes at a time. So, maybe three or four paragraphs. That’s it.”
“I would do that and when I was done with those five or ten minutes, I would get up. I’d go shoot some hoops, do a little drawing, maybe play video games for a few minutes, and then I come back. Not necessarily to the same assignment, not even necessarily to the same subject, but just to another task that required just five to ten minutes of my attention. From that point forward, all the way through to graduation, I was a straight-A student, Dean’s List, President’s Honor Roll, every semester.”
“I then went on to one of the top graduate programs in the world for finance and economics. Same approach, same results. So then, I graduate. I start my career and I’m thinking, this worked really well for me. You know, you take these big concepts, these complex ideas, these big assignments, you break them down too much more manageable tasks, and then along the way, you make a marginal improvement to the process that ups the odds of success in your favor. I’m going to try and do this in my career. So I did. I started out as an exotic derivatives trader for credit Swiss. It then led me to be global head of currency option trading for Bank of America”
Mr. Duneier teaches graduate courses on Decision Analysis in UCSB’s College of Engineering. His book, AlphaBrain is due for release in early 2017 from Wiley & Sons. Through Bija Advisors, he helps business leaders improve performance by applying proven, proprietary decision-making methods to their own processes. His artwork has been featured around the world and is represented by the Sullivan Goss Gallery. As Commissioner of the League of Professional Educators, Duneier is using cognitive science to alter the landscape of American education. He is the former Head of Currency Option Trading at Bank of America and Emerging Markets at AIG International.
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain. As it tires, your brain looks for shortcuts. The 2 most common decision avoidance tactics are:
to act impulsively (without seeing the consequences of the decision)
to procrastinate (do nothing)
Taking decisions takes willpower. Willpower is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted. It is like a muscle that gets fatigued with use.
There are a limited number of good decisions that one can take in a day. You might be a more effective decision maker than those around you, but you will still have a finite limit on the number of good decisions you can take in a day.
How do you Ration your decision making?
In the toughest days of my life as a CEO – dealing with the fallout from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the collapse in bank lending at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, I hit my limits of decision fatigue. In order to get through the weeks and have energy to deal with the things that would allow us as a business to get through these tough times, I rationed my decision making.
The first step was to specify when and where I would take decisions. (Initially… when: on a Friday; where: only in my office). Previously my team would approach me at any time in the day, over coffee, over lunch, via email, via sms to request budget for small projects or permission to do some new activity. I felt responsable as leader for providing an immediate answer. It was killing me and leaving me with no energy to dedicate to building our future once we survived the immediate crisis.
“That’s great, bring it on Friday…”
I decided that I would take all budget decisions on a Friday between 9-12. If someone came to me with a request, I learnt to say “that’s great, bring it on Friday and we can take a decision”. It was hard at first, people were frustrated and angry and didn’t like my lack of willingness to engage at the time and place that they wanted. Over the following months, the people around me learnt to plan ahead and bring the information necessary to take a good decision on the Friday before they needed the decision.
It gave me peace at lunchtimes, in the break area, even in my office when someone opened the door on a Tuesday. It was a challenge to remove my sense of responsibility to decide at all moments. I learnt to be able to have a conversation where I could contribute ideas, but allow it to be clear that no final decision would be taken during this discussion.
When One decision is not really One decision…
My wife realised that one of her struggles with going to the gym is that it was never just one single decision. Each trip to the gym was a series of decisions: do I change at home or at the gym? do I shower at the gym or at home? will I eat there or not? which t-shirt will I bring? which trainers will I use today? which bag will I use? As the idea of gym came up, her brain knew that it would be exhausted by the series of 20 decisions. Her solution? She wrote down all the questions that she used to ask herself and wrote the answers. She make going to the gym become one simple decision, with a written template of pre-decided answers (shower=yes, trainers=blue, eat=there…)
In Vistage one of the first processes of change that we see in a new CEO member, is a greater awareness of which decisions they should be taking and which decisions they should not be taking.
Are you taking €10,000 decisions, €100 decisions or €1 decisions?
If you are taking the €1 decisions, your brain’s decision willpower will be depleted before lunchtime.
If you are taking the €1 decisions, your €10,000 decisions will not be receiving the analysis and impact that they deserve.
Jack Welch spoke about the size of decisions that he allowed himself to be taking. GE is a multi-billion business. As leader Jack allowed himself to only be taking decisions that could affect at least $50M of the market capitalisation.
Steve Jobs is famous for having a wardrobe full of identical blue jeans and black t-shirts. It was not a fashion decision, it was a conservation of decision willpower for the important decisions of Apple. Barrack Obama speaks about a similar challenge as President of the USA. He set up a structure around him that ensured that he would take no more than 5 important leadership decisions in a day.
The Structure of Leadership Decision Making
The Vistage Decision Model captures 60 years of experience of working with CEOs as they take operational and strategic decisions to lead their companies and their lives. There are 3 levels of Decision “skill” – Instinct, Judgement and Perspectives. There are 5 areas of leadership decision: Talent, Operations, Financials, Customers and Leadership Style.
I’ve been part of Entrepreneurs’ Organisation for the last 10 years and for almost any significant decision I have taken in the last decade, there are 9 people in my forum group who have helped me take a better decision. I would share with them:
the background to the decision
the why of the decision
what I’m seeking to achieve in my life
There is no major decision I’ve taken in the last 10 years that has not had at least those other 9 wise brains also looking at it. They are also giving me different perspectives, helping me think through:
Who I am
What what my strengths are
What my company strengths are and
How I can better play into the opportunities that I have
My question to you: “how many brains do you get involved in the big decisions you have to make?”
If it is just one brain (your own) then you are really going to struggle over your life as a business leader. Join Vistage, join EO, join Young Presidents’ Organization… Get into a peer group where others can give you multiple different perspectives, different ideas, different experiences that have worked for them in the past.
Get as many brains as you can to help you take important decisions, to help you think through the problems you face, to see how to seize (or say no to) the opportunities coming into your life.
Get access to brains to share your problems. Ask lots of questions and get as much coming back from other’s life experiences as you can.
There is a saying: “if you’re the smartest person in the room, find another room.”
Are you the smartest in the room? If you find that you are often the smartest person in the room, you’ve got to expand your network. Get out of that room and get yourself onto a bigger playing field.
Peer Group Organisations
Vistage (requirements: CEO of €5M+ turnover business)
The most relevant for me was number 9, not for the “decide issues quickly” but for “figure out what typically slows down your decision making and find ways to work around it”. I took some time to reflect…
What slows down my own (business) decision making?
…this is a brain dump of thoughts that come to me now…
Fear of being wrong
Fear of a better idea coming up tomorrow when we have already committed to this course
Feeling like I have to figure out all the implementation details now rather than allow them to be decided when they become necessary.
Feeling like I need to have a really good explanation of my decision that will impress others and have them see me as a “decisive visionary leader”
Feeling like I have to be 100% sure
Feeling like I should speak to a few more people and get their inputs first
Worrying that I have messed up similar decisions in the past (particularly people decisions)
Not seeing the costs of delaying the decision (both financial, and that it then hangs on my mind while I wait to actually commit to a decision)
Not being systematic about the approach to taking decisions
Not distinguishing between small decisions and big decisions and having a clearly different process for each
Not trusting myself to figure out how to make it work down the road
Not stopping to clarify exactly why the decision is important and how it relates to my vision and purpose
What slows down your decision making?
Here’s the four lessons from the article that I found most valuable and important to me right now. Numbers are from the Inc Article, Bold text is my own addition…
9. Maximize your time.
“The fastest way to maximize your time is to decide issues quickly. If you need to speed up your decision making, figure out what typically slows down your decision making and find ways to work around it. Pass responsibilities down as far as your people are comfortable. This is another way of speeding up your decision making, by giving others power to decide. You’ll often find that this motivates your employees, building their confidence and enthusiasm, and over time they will gradually accept more responsibility. Clarify your company’s vision, so everyone on the team intuitively understands when projects should be prioritized.”
—Jesse Robbins, founder and CEO of Orion Labs, an enterprise voice platform which secured $18.25 million last fall to expand its next-generation of services to the broader speech and voice recognition market, on track to be worth $18.3 billion by 2023
“It’s OK to be vulnerable. In high school and college, I spent a lot of time learning to be mentally strong, which can be a good thing, since resilience will wear down mountains given time. However, you don’t have to be strong all the time. Tell people when you don’t know, and when you’re worried. You’d be amazing how much help you’ll get, and how much of a connection that creates.”
—Mike Tuchen, CEO of Talend, a provider of cloud and big data integration solutions which saw its stock rise nearly 60 percent over the past year
“CEOs need people around them who are going to question their fundamental beliefs. These people should test and push, so CEOs are forced to question the decisions that they’re making and plan for the inevitable ups and downs that building a company will bring. If you surround yourself with coaches, prodders, and different thinkers, you will create a feedback loop that will fundamentally change your view of the world and make you a better leader.”
—Gordon Ritter, founder and general partner of Emergence Capital, an enterprise cloud venture firm which was recently named Venture Capital Firm of the Year by the National Venture Capital Association
“The one thing I wish my younger self knew was how to find a balance between acting smart and expressing achievements without hesitation. Stereotypes of women’s behavior can dominate perceptions, and as a woman in a male-dominated, STEM-related field, I’ve learned how to take a seat at the table and deliver my message so that it’s heard and respected.”
—Chris Mackey, CEO of MackeyRMS, a research management platform for investment professionals that has taken no outside capital/funding, with clients on its platform managing over $1 trillion in assets
What is the activity that you could do for €10 that would give you the most happiness over 1 hour? for €100? for €1000? for €10,000?
This video is from Dublin. My dad makes an appearance. Some scenes from the Ireland vs Argentina rugby, and from Trinity College and at UCD Smurfit Business Schools where I was teaching during the week.
Billionaire Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater, one of the world’s largest and best-performing hedge funds. Recently, Ray published his lessons in his book, Principles.
Here’s the opening paragraph of Ray Dalio’s book…
“Before I begin telling you what I think, I want to establish that I am a “dumb shit” who doesn’t know much relative to what I need to know. Whatever success I’ve had in life has more to do with my knowing how to deal with my not knowing than anything I know. The most important thing I learned is an approach to life based on principles that helps me find out what’s true and what to do about it.”
The Number 1 Hurdle to your growth and potential?
Closed Mindedness is not knowing that you don’t know (and not taking deliberate steps to overcome this natural human state).
You must learn to be Open Minded.
Here are some cues that will tell if you are Open-Minded.
Open-minded people are not angry when someone disagrees, Close-minded people don’t want their ideas challenged.
Open-minded people genuinely believe they could be wrong, Close-minded people are more likely to make statements than ask questions.
Open-minded people always feel compelled to see things through others’ eyes, Close-minded people focus much more on being understood than on understanding others.
Open-minded people approach everything with a deep-seated fear that they may be wrong, Close-minded people lack a deep sense of humility.
LinkedIn is testing out a new free service for members that will match them with other professionals who can give them career advice. LinkedIn will help to make matches between mentees and mentors via its online platform.
Mentorship is a significant part of the careers of every successful person that I know. I personally have sought out and found mentors since my early 20s working in Accenture. I used to think this was normal, but I discovered over the last decade that many talented friends have never found a formal mentor relationship.
I have run the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation Mentorship Program in Barcelona for the last 3 years and have learnt a lot as we have got 15 mentor-mentee pairs connected and working together to achieve specific goals. Personally I have have benefitted from some wonderful mentors throughout my life – in particular Michael (my first long-term manager at Accenture), Brian (the reason I teach at IESE Business School), Harry (helped me take a big decision last year). I personally mentor 5 people each year and it is hugely valuable for me to reflect on my own life as I listen to the challenges and opportunities of these inspiring individuals.
How will Mentorship work on LinkedIn?
Hari Srinivasan, director of product management at LinkedIn, says, “As people spend less and less time at a company, it’s hard to find people you need to talk to.” LinkedIn user analysis shows that 89% of senior leaders (on LinkedIn) would be interested in giving advice.
This is how it works: There will be a section on your profile called “dashboard”. This will display the “career advice hub” where you can sign up to be a mentor or a mentee.
The first screen is a basic overview of the function and its value for both those giving and getting advice. From there, you are instructed to provide specifics on who you’d like to talk to with parameters such as region, industry, school, etc.
LinkedIn is working on ways to make the conversation flow more smoothly so both sides get what they need. LinkedIn say that it’s not meant to be a replacement for long-term mentorship. It’s meant to tackle those “quick question” requests such as whether you are taking the right approach in different scenarios.
Do you have a mentor? Are you searching for a mentor? Are you interested in becoming a mentor?
Sometimes we paddle frantically and make no progress, other times we make little effort to accelerate and see great advances in our life. What if we spent more time seeing the flow of our life, and not so much time in frantic paddling.
Mastermind groups such as Vistage, EO or YPO are powerful in helping you see more strategically.