What policy led to this bad outcome?

Julia Galef, a writer on rationality, had a great spin on how we can better separate processes and outcomes and pick where we want to maximize. When things go wrong, she asks herself – “What policy am I following that produced this bad outcome?”

For example, she shares a policy example wherein you always arrive 1 hour 20 minutes before a flight. However, this policy may result in you missing the occasional flight due to an accident on the road. But, if you over react to the bad outcome and change policy to be at the airport 2 hours earlier, as a frequent flier, you’re going to be spend hundreds of hours waiting at airports.

Similarly, I could spend 2x the time before sending every email to ensure there isn’t any typo or mistake. But, that would be a very expensive policy that would eat in to other productive time. So, it is best I assume that there will be mistakes and repeat sends that fix them from time to time.

There are a few places in life where we need a 100% success rate. It makes sense to choose fail safe, rigorous policies in those cases. But, otherwise, we’re better off picking good policies/processes/decisions that do the job most of the time.

And, in the off chance they don’t work, we must learn to habitually separate bad outcomes from good processes.

(H/T: Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss)

Policies and principles

As we learn to manage ourselves, we often start by setting policies. Policies are iron clad rules that help us achieve certain objectives. Examples of policies are –

1. I will always go to the gym first thing in the morning
2. I will never check email on Saturdays
3. I only eat sweets on Sundays

Of course, these policies are just ways to live by certain principles. For example, the principles behind these 3 rules might be –

1. I care a lot about exercise and would like to make sure I get it done
2. I need to feel relaxed during the weekend
3. I care about the sugar levels in my blood and would like to make sure I keep them low

Now, these principles provide us degrees of freedom. For example, you might be okay checking your email on a Saturday as long as you are feeling relaxed. And, those degrees of freedom enable us to be more effective by applying these principles based on the context.

Managing by policy is an amateur’s game. This is just as applicable whether we’re managing ourselves or an organization.

This, in turn, is exactly why culture matters – both in organizations and individuals. Google’s employees are not held back from discussing confidential information from their company’s weekly all hands because of a policy. Rather, it is their commitment to the culture. Great cultures are important because they enable leaders to focus on principles rather than policy.

For short term wins, policies can work great. However, if you are in it for the long term, principles are the way to go.