1. Smarter, Faster Better book review: All in the mind

Smarter, Faster Better book review: All in the mind

Rich storytelling combined with neuroscience and behavioural economics shows what makes some people and companies more productive

By: | Published: April 17, 2016 6:10 AM

Smarter, Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive
Charles Duhigg
Penguin
Random House
Pp380
Rs 1,477

Charles Duhigg’s new book Smarter Faster Better is a much-needed life hacker in today’s technology-driven world. Even as automation has made our life easy and has penetrated every aspect of our lives—right from the way we drive our cars or communicate with smartphones or live in IoT-enabled smart homes, it has also raised risks. Any misstep if the automation system fails can lead to tragedy, because we don’t know where to focus in a crisis situation. Duhigg calls this cognitive tunnelling — a mental glitch where our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.

It is this cognitive tunnelling that led to major accidents such the Air France flight 447 crash in 2009, which killed all 228 people on board. So while lack of attention led to the crash of the Air France flight, another Qantas Flight 32 landed safely in Singapore, in 2010, thanks to the right intervention by its pilot. Today, the case of Qantas Flight 32 is taught in psychology classrooms as a case study of how to maintain focus during an emergency.

Now take the example of GE. In the late 1980s, executives at GE contacted an organisational psychologist from southern California for help. The reason being, even though executives at GE met every SMART goal, profits were falling. Some divisions, in particular, didn’t seem to excel— especially a nuclear equipment plant in North Carolina and a jet engine plant in Massachusetts. To overcome the problem and looking for a turnaround in the company, GE rehashed the goal setting system used by the company since the 1960s, called the SMART goal, to include stretch goal, which is the larger ambition. The idea behind stretch goal was to disrupt the complacency that is easy to set in in a big organisation like GE. This worked for GE. By 1999, the number of defects per engine had fallen by 75% and the company had gone 38 months without missing a single delivery record. The results were audacious, which no SMART goal would have achieved.

Consider another crisis situation. The filmmakers behind Disney’s Frozen had only 18 months to finish the movie. Seven months passed and the team still couldn’t come to a conclusion on how to end the movie. To find a solution, Disney disrupted the team dynamics. This small change led to the creative breakthrough. And Frozen became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.

These examples form the core of the book, which is based on eight concepts  — motivation, team, goal setting, focus, managing others, decision-making, innovation and absorbing data. Each chapter reinforces the concept that productivity relies on making certain choices. However, the book is not about productive habits, but why we need to have productive mindsets to get better at the things we do.

Using various such interesting stories such as a kidnapping solved with lean and agile thinking, a NICU nurse who was very good at diagnosing infants’ medical problems, the story of Annie Duke who dropped out of PhD and made a career out of playing poker and how Google’s People Analytics group learnt that the way a team interacts is more important than who is in the team, Duhigg explains which mental models work and which don’t. Each anecdote teaches about motivation, teams, goal setting, decision making and the power of mental models. Every example has one thing in common, that productivity relies in making certain choices.

Almost all the chapters start with a difficult situation where the odds of failure are high, such as the difficult landing of Qantas Flight 32, the traumatic Yom Kippur War that ended in 1974, and cost Israel many lives, or Annie Duke struggling in the finals of the 2004 Tournament of Champions. Duhigg analyses what led to the final outcome in each situation and explains how winners behaved very differently from others. In each situation, it is the human mindset that made a difference.

A gifted storyteller, Duhigg, who is a reporter at The New York Times, combines his reporting skills with cutting-edge research in psychology and behavioural economics to explain why some companies and people get so much done, while some fail. Almost all books written in this genre are full of case studies and stories, but Duhigg’s storytelling skills makes this book memorable and persuasive. Duhigg succeeds in challenging our mindsets and existing thought processes. It is not just another productivity book. It is about making sense of overwhelming data we live with.

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