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Principles: Goal orientation in a multi-level perspective

Principles: Goal orientation in a multi-level perspective
Source: https://sites.psu.edu/brendanwhitson/2015/07/06/post-goal-setting-workshop-cartoon/

This note is the second of a seven-part series of the book Principles by Ray Dalio. The introductory note can be found here.

Goal Orientation is the most basic fundamental in the machine-based mental model where everything is directed towards a goal and getting an objective clarity on the goals of a machine is required. Goals are the pull-creators that lead you on the path of evolution and you constantly strive to achieve these goals for a happy life. The clarity on goals gives you the clarity to diagnose a machine and why is it not reaching its goal.

All machines including organisations and humans are designed to serve a goal and this should never be missed out. Many a times, we are tempted to have a machine serve many purposes at once but it distorts the meaning of the machine. Once you know the goal that the machine is serving, you can clearly design, diagnose and debug the machine to work in that direction.

The multi-level perspective

We explained in the previous note that all machines are made of smaller machines that serve sub-purposes. Given that any machine at once is part of multiple machines. For instance, you first a machine in yourself. Then you are a part of the organizational machine, then you are a part of the national machine.  You can also be part of multiple hierarchies at once. For instance, you are also a part of your family machine in parallel to being a part of the organizational machine.

Goal orientation hence demands that you understand the goals of any machine in a multi-level perspective. For instance, your goal as a working professional on a personal level is probably to earn money and create value. Your goal on the organizational level is probably to deliver whatever your organization excels at. Finally, your goal on a national level is probably to add to the economic prosperity of your nation.

When faced with a decision, a multi-level perspective demands that you identify the consequences of all your options on different levels of goals that you are serving and choose the right level to make a decision. Each level has a different set of goals and different decision-making criteria and one has to make a decision that is optimises the performance of all the different levels.

For example, suppose that you are slightly sick and you need to take a decision on whether to take an off for the day or not. You can take this decision on your personal level where your short-term priority might be health and comfort but your long-term priority is your career. You can also take that decision on an organizational level where the short-term goal might progress but the long-term goal is still the health of its components (you). If your work for the day is important and staying at home will impact your organizational goals, you should probably take it on an organizational level. If the work for the day is not that important,  you should probably take it on a personal level.

The ability to zoom in and zoom out is essential not just to see the goal orientation at different levels but also to understand that reality unfolds at different levels. The things that you see at the highest level will be very different from the things you see at the deepest levels. A good decision needs input from the realities on all levels but must also be taken at the right level. For big machines, you probably will not be able to directly jump into the realities of different levels and hence you would need people to tell you these realities.

Approaches to experimenting with this perspective in life

Being able to see anything and everything with a multi-level perspective is one of the most important abilities in any work. I think the following experiments can be executed to develop this perspective.

  1. Understanding the goals and hierarchies of any system: The most basic approach to this perspective is trying to understand the different levels of the systems around us and asking questions as to how the goals of the system change at different levels. One can also design thought experiments to think of situations where the priorities of different goals differ and need to be brought in sync.
  2. Separating out the lower level ‘you’ from the higher level ‘you’: Dalio argues that anyone has two levels of their own self. The lower level is more instinctive and myopic whereas the higher level ‘you’ is more calm and far-sighted. Start by observing the conflict of your two levels and understanding the different goals of the two levels of your own self.

The way ahead

In the next note, we will take this perspective ahead. Dalio believes that although all machines are designed to serve a goal, for humans attaining a goal is not the ultimate objective of life. The ultimate objective is to evolve irrespective of the goal that you are chasing. The next principle explains Evolution in the context of Hyper-realism.