Creating order out of chaos: Archetypes and systematization

How can we create order out of the chaos that is our disorganized world? Recently, I’ve been thinking about two concepts that can help us to do this, related to organizing ideas, systems, and businesses: archetyping and systematizing.

I. Identifiying Archetypes

A couple of years ago, I read Ray Dalio’s book, Principles, which detailed his principles around life and work, and among many topics, one stood out to me in particular: his focus on finding patterns, or archetypes, in the world around him. He explained that he applies this principle across much of his work and life, including hiring, investing, and making predictions. For example, Dalio applies personality testing in his hiring process at Bridgewater in order to determine what potential hires’ natural strengths and weaknesses are, and what sorts of roles people are best-suited for. As another example, he studied the history of the rise and fall of empires to determine what the high-level patterns are that take place before, during, and after an empire’s rise and fall, thus being able to apply forward predictions for our world today.

In his belief, most things in life can be categorized into archetypes – people, problems, situations, and more. The concept is that even though problems/people/situations in our lives may seem unique to us, once we have enough experience or information over time, we can see that certain sorts of these problems are actually repeated multiple times, many people fall into certain archetypes of personality, and patterns of events and situations repeat over time (ex: debt crises, rises and falls of empires, etc).

Once we realize that these patterns exist, it opens the door to actually start looking for these patterns in our own personal work, interactions, and experiences. This concept was quite interesting to me, and since then, I’ve been looking at things from that perspective as well. Around me, I see various experiences, but I constantly ask myself – what is the big picture behind this? What is the bigger pattern underlying this? How can it be systematized?

We can take the chaos that is the constant influx of ideas, situations, conversations, work, events, and more, identify a pattern, and then create a narrative and understanding of it.

For example, I’ve recently been looking at my own work and trying to identify areas that may seem different and varied, but actually have a variety of similarities. What came to mind was due diligence work. Private equity firms often do a large number of diligence efforts as they analyze a variety of acquisition targets, and they often hire consulting firms to run them. Although each target and diligence effort may have differences, when we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, there are actually a variety of similarities. For example, they often require building a market model, doing a customer survey, running ex-employee/ex-competitor interviews, identifying trends/growth areas, and more. When we think about these elements, there are many opportunities to standardize and maybe systematize. I’ll continue with this analogy in the next section.


II. Systematizing

Building upon a concept in Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Revisited, it is important to build in standardized sets of practices and systems for conducting certain processes. Once an order or pattern has been identified, I believe that this is where there is a lot of opportunity to address it by creating systematized solutions for the situation at hand. For example, let’s say that we have identified a set of archetypes for a particular problem, situation, or type of person that we may interact with. Once we have the archetypes laid out, we can determine how to go about appropriately addressing each archetype based on the bigger picture and unique circumstances/requirements of each, and can create a more standardized solution approach.

Let’s return to the due diligence example. As we said, there are often a variety of types of analyses that need to be run in due diligence settings, regardless of the type or topic. Let’s go deeper into one of them – conducting interviews. There are often a variety of types of interviews that need to be run, for a variety of topics. However, maybe if we think further into the types of interviews that we need to run (e.g., ex-employee, ex-competitor), the particular topic (e.g., understanding competitive landscape, understanding key buying factors, understanding trends, etc), we can think of the types of questions that may need be asked for each, and how they would differ (by leveraging past successful examples of each type). We could then construct a base set of questions that would be asked based on the particular type of interviewee, topic, and add further specificity as needed.

Now, we could argue that this wouldn’t be useful because we would need to adjust the questions that we are asking in real-time as per the interviewee’s response. However, maybe we could actually build that in. Let’s say that we anticipate that a particular question would have response type A, B, or C – we could then actually create a set of follow-up questions based on the response that the interviewee provides, dig deeper into that area with several questions as long as needed (maybe as long as we have specified as per the parameters), and then go back up several levels to the overall set of questions.

Ideally, we could create this base skeleton of questions to be asked as per several parameters set at the beginning (i.e., length of interview, type of interviewee, type of topic, level of detail desired which could govern the depth we enter for follow-up questions, and more), with certain data plugged in to customize to the situation (e.g., name of competitors trying to assess, key buying factors we are assessing between, etc).

In this way, we could actually create a customizable skeleton of questions for conducting interviews across a variety of situations. Of course, all this isn’t to say that we can create a perfect guide 100% of the time. However, what we can do is at least minimize level of effort expended to create new solutions every time, and rather, get the team ~70-80% there with little effort by creating a base case version customized to the situation, which can then be further adjusted.

This is a very particular example, but the concept is applicable in a very wide variety of ways. For the diligence example, we can create 70-80% skeleton versions for the other areas as well, including for building a market model, building a survey, and finding growth opportunities. Outside of the diligence example, we can think more broadly within consulting about the archetypes of projects that come up, and the standard elements that may be included within each.

Thinking more broadly, we can also find countless examples in other domains, from writing an essay, to putting together a brief, to designing a building as an architect, to doing a company valuation, and more. In every single situation and domain, there are currently many complex tasks that require a great deal of mental energy because people often start from scratch for the creation process, when in reality, there are countless past similar creations to leverage, and complex thought from scratch may not be necessary. If we could create 80% versions as a first step with very little effort and then only some minor adjustment required thereafter, we could take out the requirement for heavy thinking in these areas, and instead focus our and our employees’ mental energy on more complex tasks.

III. What this means

I think that as we progress as a society and continue in our desire to grow and enter into new areas, thinking about our work and experiences from the perspective of archetypes and systematization can be immensely powerful in simplifying much of our current mental load.

I’m going to continue thinking through this in my work, experiences, and daily life, and I encourage anybody reading this to do so as well, because there is an immense amount of potential within this.

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