‘Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive’

Book review (taken from the June edition of International Investment magazine).

This interesting and informative book by Charles Duhigg is the result of the author’s investigations into how productivity works, and his efforts to understand why some people and companies are so much more productive than others.

Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times and graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School, came to believe that a small number of ideas are at the core of why some people and companies get so much done.

These key ideas – Duhigg identifies eight – are each given a chapter: Motivation, Teams, Focus, Goal Setting, Managing Others, Decision Making, Innovation and Absorbing Data.

So far, so predictable, but the reader should not be discouraged by the somewhat pedestrian chapter-headings, as Duhigg engages and stimulates in equal measure, thanks to a very effective structure which is based on absorbing real-life stories, interleaved with the psychological and sociological conclusions derived from these stories.

Thus the chapter on ‘Innovation’ is framed by a fascinating account of how the teams working on Disney’s Frozen overcame seemingly insurmountable creative problems. Facing inexorable deadlines, the production was beset with characters that lacked credibility, plot-lines that didn’t ring true – even songs that failed to excite. The solution?… encourage the creative staffers to draw on their own life experiences, and then screen for authenticity, acknowledging that innovation becomes most likely when old ideas are mixed together in new ways.

Eighteen months on, the film that emerged from this production crisis was declared the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

In the book’s ‘Focus’ section, meanwhile, the importance of mental mapping of potential situations is examined. The Australian pilot of Quantas Flight 32, Richard Champion de Crespigny, habitually invited his crew to imagine worst-case scenarios on their per-flight journey to the airport and to visualise their specific responses. This technique was to serve him in good stead, when, shortly after Flight 32 took off from Singapore en route to Sydney one day, it suffered an almost catastrophic failure of systems and airframe, later described as “one of the worst midair mechanical disasters in modern aviation”.

De Crespigny’s response was to apply a mental model to the situation, instead of attempting to react to the overwhelming amount of computer-generated data being spewed out in the stricken plane’s cockpit.

This decision to simplify, and to imagine he was flying his single-engined Cessna rather than the massive Airbus A380 he was actually piloting, was later seen as possibly having helped to save the lives of the 440 passengers and crew aboard.

“Today, Quantas Flight 32 … is cited as one of the prime examples of how mental models can put even the most dire situations within our control,” Duhigg writes.

‘About making choices’

At the heart of the Smarter Better Faster philosophy, readers of the book soon realise, is the concept that productivity is not about working harder or longer, but about making choices in a certain way.

In other words, as the the author explains, “once people know how to make self-directed choices into a habit, motivation becomes automatic”.

Duhigg’s background as a successful reporter and journalist is evident to readers of this book. And it makes Smarter Better Faster a fast-paced, absorbing read, which wears its erudition lightly.

Each illustrative case study – from Google’s exhaustive study of how the best teams function (how a group functions is much more important than who is in the group, we learn) to the US Marine Corps general faced with low morale amongst recruits (he discovered that instilling a “bias towards action” can turn even the most directionless teenagers into self-motivating achievers), is both absorbing and thought-provoking.

Does this book provide the tools to increase your productivity and allow you to indeed work smarter, better and faster? Possibly.

There are some stimulating suggestions, (envisage the future as multiple possibilities rather than fixating on what you hope will happen; assign a probability percentage to each, thus increasing the accuracy of your predictions).

But inevitably, perhaps, some of the conclusions drawn from the anecdotes are less than earth-shattering (“when we encounter new information, we should force ourselves to do something with it”).

Smarter Faster Better may not, then, reveal the “secrets” of being productive, exactly, but there is no doubt that is will set readers thinking about the ways in which they currently approach, manage and deal with their daily workloads, and how such workloads might most effectively be handled.

Meanwhile, the often counter-intuitive conclusions delivered in the eight chapters are stimulating and provocative.

Add to this the entertaining and lively anecdotes, the well-researched scientific studies (there are pages of notes in a voluminous Appendix, as well as a comprehensive Index), and you have a book that can be read and enjoyed on many different levels.

In short, SFB is a self-help book that may, in fact, actually prove to be helpful.

By Charles Duhigg
Heinemann, 380pp
ISBN 9780434023455

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