American engineer and entrepreneur Wilbert L. “Bill” Gore (1912–86) was the founder (with wife Genevieve (Vieve)) of W. L. Gore & Associates, the maker of such innovative products as Gore-Tex fabrics, Elixir guitar strings, and a variety of medical products.
Gore’s open and creative workplace emphasized autonomy, fairness, commitment, and experimentation. He instituted a mental model for risk-tolerance called the “Waterline Principle.”
Gore compared the level of allowable risk to the waterline on a boat.
- Sanction risks above the waterline since they wouldn’t sink the boat—you have ample autonomy above the waterline. If a decision goes bad and produces a hole in the side of the boat above the waterline, you can fix the hole, learn from the experience, and carry on.
- Risks that fell below the waterline, in contrast, can blow a hole that can sink the boat. Below-the-waterline risks need prior approval from the “captain.” Your team can be prepared for such risks, investigate potential solutions, or buy appropriate insurance coverage.
When making risky bets and decisions in the face of ambiguous or conflicting data, ask three questions:
- What’s the upside, if events turn out well?
- What’s the downside, if events go very badly?
- Can you live with the downside? Truly?
The Waterline Principle encourages prudent experimentation and conscientious risk-taking by lowering the risk waterline.
Idea for Impact: Risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. Invite your team to identify risks that can sink the boat and those that can cause survivable damages.