Sunday, April 30, 2017

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg was about an interesting topic in the science of productivity and the book an excellent one, broken down into eight different chapters.

Chapter 1: Motivation - Duhigg writes of how a feeling of control about things big or small can generate motivation, with examples given both from how in Marine boot camp, recruits would have to problem solve with little direction and people in nursing homes would defy orders by doing things like arranging their rooms a certain way or trading the food they were supposed to eat. From this, people would develop a feeling of control over their destiny, often with a corresponding bias towards action.

Chapter 2: Teams - In this chapter it's noted how teams work best when members feel a level of psychological safety, that it's ok to both be an individual and make mistakes. Additionally important is that people feel comfortable speaking freely, that their sentiments are heard by others, and are sensitive to how their teammates feel.

Chapter 3: Focus - The chapter on Focus has two interesting stories of commercial airline situations, with the first Air France Flight 447 that crashed after leaving Rio de Janeiro in 2009 and second Quantas Flight 32 out of Singapore in 2010 that had disaster averted due to decisions made by the cockpit crew. In Flight 447, the pilots should have easily been able to keep the plane flying safely, but didn't, with cockpit voice recordings showing the pilot in charge becoming the victim of cognitive tunneling, where he didn't have any mental models, or stories, of problems that might occur so when they did, he just became confused and didn't react well. The Quantas flight on the other hand featured a pilot and crew who talked through scenarios that might occur before even boarding the plane. When cascading problems then started to occur in flight, they saw that the problems were so numerous and severe that the best mental model to work with wasn't how to deal with each issue, but rather to focus on what still did work on the plane, with the pilot later saying he reframed his view to thinking of himself flying a very basic Cessena airplane, and what would be required to land one successfully. The whole notion as Duhigg explains it is around the benefit of narrating to yourself your life events as they occur and constantly building models of the situations you're in and may face.

Chapter 4: Goal Setting - Covered in this chapter is how goals need to be a combination of wide-ranging stretch goals, and to-do lists that make up those goals. Duhigg gives the example of how SMART goals from General Electric when done poorly were simply at the to-do list level, with people focusing on checking items off, and not enough on whether the goal a worthwhile one to do. This notion of having worthwhile big picture goals very much related to the third chapter on mental modeling and creating stories of where you both want to wind up and situations you may encounter.

Chapter 5: Managing Others - Duhigg in this chapter on managing others cited a study begun in 1994 by Stanford professors James Baron and Michael Hannon, in which they examined Silicon Valley companies and found five different cultures: commitment model, star model, engineering model, bureaucratic model, and autocratic model companies. The commitment culture firms were by far the most successful as a whole, with these investing heavily invest in training of employees and then putting a lot of responsibility on them, creating a sense of ownership in their situation, an idea that brings to mind concepts from Duhigg's chapter one. Covered in the book is the reopening of the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA as a GM-Toyota partnership and how workers were encouraged to pull cords to stop the assembly line and fix problems, a practice that would have been unheard of under the prior GM-only factor. Also cited was the FBI database program Sentinel, and how it was developed from a basis of what individual agents requested it do.

Chapter 6: Decision Making - This chapter covered how good decision making is about thinking probabilistically, envisioning various scenarios and the odds of each occurring, with those scenarios and odds coming from past events, another harkening back to the chapter on focus and mental models.

Chapter 7: Innovation - The subtitle of the Innovation chapter is How idea brokers and creative desperation saved Disney's Frozen and written of by Duhigg is how in the case of Frozen, the musical West Side Story, and successful scientific papers, people were taking conventional ideas from other settings and combining them in new ways. Covered is a 2011 study by university professors Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones of close to 18 million scientific papers which showed that the most popular papers, those cited by others, had a combination of different ideas from elsewhere. Also noted in this chapter is the idea of being sensitive to your own experiences as you work the creative process.

Chapter 8: Absorbing Data - This final chapter of the book covers how data most powerful if it's worked heavily with by the people who can impact it. Duhigg tells the story of a failing Cincinnati public school and how much data there was even when the school failing, but then how when teachers forced to work with the information, they conducted trials and experiments to see if the data would reflect improvement. The basic idea is that data matters when ownership is taken by the people who can impact it, especially if they're coming up with ideas they think will have an impact, running with them, then evaluating the results and course-correcting.

Also around this topic of how people interact with data is the notion of how solid decisions are more likely to be made when there's fewer choices, with 401K plan selection as an example, and the idea of the Engineering Design Process, the breaking up of problems or questions into sub problems or questions that can be tested and worked on as a methodical search for potential solutions. This section on choices and data makes me think of how TurboTax software works, it's a series of questions that walks someone through a process. The final thing that struck me from this chapter was Duhigg's mention that research has shown taking notes longhand more effective run via laptop as it's harder to do that way, people are interacting more closely with the material.

There's a lot of material covered by Duhigg in Smarter Faster Better and he does it in an engaging way and provides a number of things to consider out of the book.