Smarter, Faster, Better

Duhigg, Charles. (2016). Smarter Faster Better. New York: Random House.

Why this book?

Charles Duhigg’s last book was titled “The Power of Habit.”  He defined how habits were formed and how our responses get programmed into our behavior.  Duhigg provides a chain of events, CUE —ROUTINE—REWARD.  This is similar to what Marshall Goldsmith wrote about in Triggers.  Marshall’s chain of events was – TRIGGER —- (Impulse
- Awareness – Choice) – BEHAVIOR. We can’t control triggers.  What we can control is the routine of how we respond to the triggers.  Duhigg provides many stories of individuals and teams demonstrating behaviors that lead to increased skills in leadership and creative solutions to problems. Each chapter starts with a story, sometimes two and then Duhigg puts the results in context of the story.

There is a lot of talk in business about wanting productivity.  One issue to solve is what is our best use of time, resources, and energy to get productivity and the best results.  One generally accepted observation is where there is a good team generating good solutions, the team is typically being led by a good leader.  Smarter Faster Better helps us understand how these leaders get results?

The key is in how these leaders facilitate motivation both personally and professionally within team members. “The anticipation of choice itself was associated with increased activity in [the brain which affects motivational processes].”  Allowing people to make choices has a positive effect on their motivation and their thinking.  Effective team leaders know that People who know how to self-motivate earn more money than their peers, report higher levels of happiness, and say they are more satisfied with their families, jobs, and lives.”

Motivation can be learned. That means we have some control over how to get motivated.  When people say motivation is innate, that takes the choice out of the equation which means motivation is not really in our control.  That reduces responsibility and accountability. We want leaders and employees to believe they do have some control over their work lives. Actually, people who believe they have some control over their life live longer.

One way to increase motivation, using control as a contributor, is for people to be able to make decisions.  Those who do not believe they have any input into decision-making tend to sit back and act less accountable.  Another helpful hint, in the book, is if you are writing a book, write the conclusion first.  If you want to get better at the outcome, get specific about what you are trying to accomplish first, then make a plan on ‘how’ to get to the goal.

In work life today, fewer and fewer young people have been involved in sports, clubs, and activities.  Without that experience, it is imperative that leaders create a team focus on collaboration, creating psychological safety to contribute. Many researchers have studied ‘internal locus of control,’ also called efficacy, as a major element of generating ideas, working effectively on teams, and taking responsibility.  A team of psychologists wrote in the journal Problems and Perspectives in Management in 2012. “Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and longer life span. People with an internal locus of control tend to earn more money, have more friends, stay married longer, and report greater professional success and satisfaction.”

Another study focused on senior citizens who would not adhere to rigid schedules, set menus, and rules imposed by the living facility.  These seniors had a higher quality of life, reduced medications, and had improved attitudes.  Researchers said that even being able to refuse to eat a piece of cake gave them a sense of some control over their life.

Amy Edmondson (2012) has written the best book I have read on Teaming.  It is referred to in this book and focused on the best teams have psychological safety, honors honesty for admitting mistakes, and the necessity of the best teams to learn from their experiences.  She studied many different organizations. If people are punished for their errors, less reporting of problems occurred.

There were examples in this book from Pixar, Google, etc. about what makes the most productive teams.  It turns out that putting the smartest people in the room didn’t make the difference.  It was ‘how’ the teams interacted that made the most difference. It was how people were treated in the team environment that made the difference.

Duhigg reported that two behaviors that all the good teams shared.

  1. All the members of the good teams spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as “equality in the distribution of turn-taking.’ Conversation ebbed from assignment to assignment—but by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,”
  2. The good teams tested as having “high average social sensitivity”—a fancy way of saying that the groups were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces.

Most of us know that you don’t have to be best buddies, BUT, we do have to treat each other with respect, listen, and be genuinely interested in team success.  People need to know they will be heard.

Another key point is that leadership modeling is key to setting the stage for teams to work together. Duhigg goes on to quote Laszlo Bock, former HR Director at Google. “The biggest thing you should take away from this work is how teams work matters, in a lot of ways, more than who is on them.” We don’t need superstars, we need people who can learn, work collaboratively and contribute ideas to the team.

Lazlo Bock brought up a series of slides. “What matters are five key norms”

  1. Teams need to believe that their work is important.
  2. Teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful.
  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles.
  4. Team members need to know they can depend on one another.
  5. Teams need psychological safety.

Duhigg continues to quote Bock, “to create psychological safety, Bock said, team leaders needed to model the right behaviors. There were Google-designed checklists they could use:”

  • Leaders should not interrupt teammates during conversations, because that will establish an interrupting norm.
  • They should demonstrate they are listening by summarizing what people say after they said it.
  • They should admit what they don’t know.
  • They shouldn’t end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once.
  • They should encourage people who are upset to express their frustrations and encourage teammates to respond in nonjudgmental ways.
  • They should call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them through open discussion

Without good leadership, effective teams who work together, and the belief my comments count, teams sometimes default to whoever is perceived to be the smartest or the most experience.  This results in what Duhigg calls, “Cognitive Tunneling.”  When we think we have the best decision or are willing to accept a decision without open discussion, we narrow our focus and possible solutions are negated.  This kind of thinking really limits our ability to find creative solutions and leaders are key in keeping the dialogue open so everyone has a chance to talk.

A team of researchers wrote in Political Psychology in 2003. “A high need for closure has been shown to trigger close-mindedness, authoritarian impulses, and a preference for conflict over cooperation.” Beware of premature closure.  In a crisis, high control is needed.  Most of the time we are not in that situation. Good decisions take time and the back and forth dialogue.

Another good point I got from this book was that superstars were more likely to be drawn to difficult assignments early in their career.  They focused on learning and problem solving rather than be complacent.  NOTE TO SELF: I want to get better at recognizing that.

Leaders and experienced professionals can get engaged in reverse mentoring.  Yes, experienced people have organizational savvy, AND newer team members sometimes bring new skills and perspectives to the team or organization.

Duhigg identifies superstars by the stories they tell.  Newbies are constantly asking questions, making new connections, and picking the brains of the experienced staff.  They are trying to make sense of the world from their point of view.

A great quote in the book comes from an airplane pilot from Quantas, de Crespigny. “You can’t delegate thinking, Computers fail, checklists fail, everything can fail. But people can’t. We have to make decisions, and that includes deciding what deserves our attention. The key is forcing yourself to think. As long as you’re thinking, you are halfway home.”  AMEN.

The quote above speaks to the following quote from a highly-focused organization on results only. “People respond to the conditions around them. If you’re being constantly told to focus on achievable results, you’re only going to think of achievable goals. You’re not going to dream big.” In my experience, it is a both/and, not an either/or.  The balance between good thinking and good results creates conditions for longer-term teams who show better results.

Good leadership and productive teams are hard work.  Bo Peep was wrong.  Leave them alone and they’ll come home….  Not true.  “Good employees are always the hardest asset to find,” said Baron. “When everyone wants to stick around, you’ve got a pretty strong advantage.” I am always wary of the organization if there is high turnover.  Yes, people move on to learn more.  If a leader can’t keep the best, something is usually wrong.  “Employees work smarter and better when they believe they have more decision-making authority and when they believe their colleagues are committed to their success.”

At the end of the book, Duhigg writes about innovation.  He tells the story of Disney. He quotes, “Every movie sucks at first. This conundrum of how to spur innovation on a deadline—or, put another way, how to make the creative process more productive isn’t unique to filmmaking.”  “As the economy changes, and our capacity to achieve creative insights becomes more important than ever, the need for fast originality is even more urgent.” Anyone who thinks the world will be stable isn’t looking at the same world I am.

Yes, values of honesty, integrity, compassion, etc. probably should not change.  However, as the old adage states, intended consequences sometimes happen, unintended consequences always happen.  It seems that the real question is how will we respond when the unintended consequences happen.  Therefore, ongoing thinking and conversations will be one way to engage in ongoing learning.

Continual learning is a cornerstone of some of the best companies.  IDEO continues to find creative solutions to problems.  Most of these solutions come from combining and recombining ideas from different sources.  One story in the book said those bike helmets came from watching people carrying their boats from lake to lake.  Most people know that Velcro came from trying to remove burrs from a dog. Airbag technology came from hand grenades and so on.

Duhigg finishes the book with a quote from Steven Johnson about creative problem-solving. “When we teach people a process for reframing choices, when we give them a series of steps that causes a decision to seem a little bit different than before, it helps them take more control of what’s going on inside their heads.”