How To Synthesize Like A Bridgewater Executive
In Ray Dalio's Principles he talks about the importance of being able to synthesize in order to make good decisions. And in order to synthesize well, you need to navigate the levels effectively (Principle 5.4). There's a diagram in Principles on how to navigate levels well that shows what good vs bad synthesis is, but Ray doesn't get tactical about how to do it. I was lucky enough to learn how to do it first-hand while at Bridgewater Associates and in this post I will provide a simple framework and practical example that will help you synthesize like a Bridgewater executive.
What is Synthesis?
The simple definition of synthesis is to "combine (a number of things) into a coherent whole." But at Bridgewater this is only part of the definition. When communicating you also need to provide the "so what" in relation to the goal 🎯.
A few key situations where synthesis is very important are:
Communicating a vision to your organization
Getting your team to coalesce around a critical problem or risk
Providing a major project update
Pitching to investors
Why Synthesizing with a Goal Matters
Have you ever been frustrated because someone didn't listen to you about a problem and then later said, "I told you this, but you didn't listen to me"? If so—I've felt exactly the same way, and this post will help you solve that problem whether you're a aspiring manager or seasoned executive.
I had my big ah-ha moment while I was leading a big project at Bridgewater Associates. The project went off-track and my boss (the Department Head) asked what happened. Frustrated, I told him "I've been telling you this was going to happen for weeks!" His response was, "If people aren't hearing you, you're not synthesizing effectively." Ouch 😲!
But something clicked in my head💡. I realized the best executives think at a more conceptual level about goals — they think about the why and what, while implementers think about the how. So I developed a mental framework to help me synthesize more effectively and refined this ability.
There are four major elements to creating an effective goal-oriented synthesis. Each part is listed below with critical elements described in sub-bullets:
HEADLINE: Give the headline and how it relates to the goal — the so what
This should be the most important thing you want people to take away
GOAL/PROBLEM: Define the goal (or problem statement) and why it's important
A goal is a desired outcome and should be tangible and/or measurable
Describe what good looks like (WGLL) for the outcome — help others visualize the future state and confirm you're on the same page
A problem statement articulates the bad outcome that happened, or is at risk of happening; and it should be sized in a measurable way
Bad outcomes typically fall into one of two categories — time or money — and come in the form of losing something that already exists or not realizing something we want
FIELD: Identify where on the field things stand
Provide a high-level view of the milestones on the path to the goal or resolving the problem
To do this well you need to visualize the path with a focus on the what, not the how
Provide an update oriented to the milestones on the path that includes:
Status (e.g. In progress, complete, delayed, 50% complete, 1 month in)
What to expect next (e.g. By the end of the month we expect ship the beta version)
Big accomplishment, insight, or obstacle
Here's how I'd like you to transact:
Inform (e.g. This is just FYI)
Triangulate (e.g. Have you also noticed this issue?)
Approve (e.g. Do you approve my budget, plan, etc?)
Help (e.g. I need 2 devs)
OPEN IT UP: Open it up for questions and discussion
Is there anything I might be missing?
Would you do anything differently?
Do you have updates for me that might affect this?
What to expect — Probing Questions
If you synthesize effectively people will double click into parts of the plan. This is where in Ray's diagram the arrows go down and then back up. This is called probing — it's simply pressure testing your thinking and should not be perceived as an attack on your synthesis; it's a good thing. The goal of synthesizing is to get to that level of engagement! It helps you know what is important to your audience, gain buy-in for your ideas, and might even help you identify something you missed. Now let's run through a simple example.
Situation: Gaining buy-in to use resources on building a scalable sales process
HEADLINE: We're here to discuss building a predictable and scalable sales machine to ensure we unlock our next round of funding, and how you can help.
PROBLEM: Account Executives are not regularly tracking opportunities in Salesforce so we are unable to accurately project if we will hit revenue targets this year and can't develop a scalable process for growing other markets. Without these we we are at a high risk of not hitting investors' revenue targets that could result in not closing the next round of funding.
WGLL: The most effective sales organizations can directly tie actions to outcomes with associated benchmarks that allow us to predict Account Executives' rates of success. For example, if we know that we close 80% of qualified leads in 1 month but only 10% of deals get qualified we can stop wasting time on bad deals and better estimate the deal flow we need to hit revenue targets.
FIELD: We've met with our best sales team (NYC) and mapped their high level sales process, set it up in Salesforce and trained them, and are holding weekly meetings to review funnel KPIs and gather feedback from the team. With this we can gather initial benchmarks, train other teams, and scale the new process by end of quarter to other markets. This will provide key insights for marketing, help finance forecast more accurately, and course correct sooner rather later.
Insight / Obstacle: We've noticed it's hard for Account Executives to use Salesforce, the team can't produce it's own reports, and other markets are resisting the idea.
Transact: In order to increase the odds of success we'd like your help on the following:
A Salesforce consultant to help us improve usability for Account Executives
Finance to publish weekly sales funnel metrics on the wall for all to see
Two NY Account Executives to help us lead sales training for other markets; we recommend Joe and Judy
CRO to drive buy-in from other markets
OPEN IT UP: We're bringing this to all of you today to get your help and feedback so let's open it up for discussion.
You can see from this example I've used various pieces of the synthesis framework, given examples, and my focus is on the what and why, not the how. You don't need to adhere to the framework with formulaic precision; knowing each part will help organize your thoughts and others to follow so that with practice you will be able to synthesize on-the-fly with ease like Ray does.
How to Practice
I carry around a notebook and some post-it notes at work. Before important meetings I take 5 minutes to I bullet-point my synthesis on a new post-it and stick it to the cover of my notebook. Afterwards I put ✔️ or ❌ next to indicate where my synthesis was successful or missed. When I was at Bridgewater, I would also tell a colleague what I was doing so I could get their feedback after meetings. Typically I would ask "on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being terrible and 5 being amazing) how was my synthesis?" Remember, you need this outside perspective because the objective is to get others to understand you, so ultimately they are the judge.
If you use this framework once per day for the next month I promise you will see immediate improvements in how you think, how people respond, and how you're perceived. And pretty soon you'll be synthesizing like a Bridgewater executive. 😀